Welcome to Baja123.com Blog Sign in | Help

The future of Mexico tourism

By: Christine Delsol

Source: www.sfgate.com/mexico

In the Yucatan's interior, the Magic Pueblo of Izamal, "The Yellow City," is known for its all-yellow downtown, its horse-drawn taxis, and its legacy of three cultures: Ancient Mayan pyramids rise from city blocks surrounding one of the largest monasteries the Spanish ever built in Mexico, while contemporary Mayan artisans conduct a brisk trade in their traditional crafts. 

The vote last weekend that anointed movie-idol-handsome Enrique Peña Nieto as Mexico's president-elect may have been the first Mexican election that U.S. travelers have watched with nearly as much investment as we have in our own. For most of the years that Mexico has been a major destination, few vacationers gave a thought to the current resident of Los Pinos, the Mexican "White House" in Mexico City's lush Chapultepec Park. During the seven decades the quasi-dictatorial PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) held the country in its vise grip, it didn't make much difference who was in office, and a good portion of the tourists slinging back margaritas on Cancún's pearly-white sands didn't even know his name.

When Mexican voters threw out the entrenched, aloof and frankly corrupt PRI in 2000, we finally sat up and took notice. It felt like a revolution of sorts — an aftershock of the cataclysm of 1910 that gave birth to the PRI in the first place — and it looked like one more step on Mexico's long and bloody road to a genuine democracy. Then it turned ugly, as Felipe Calderón, the triumphant PAN party's second president, declared war on the drug cartels, with which the PRI had maintained a long and unacknowledged truce, within weeks of taking office in 2006.

The more than 50,000 deaths since then mark Calderón's offensive as an abysmal failure, and are probably the main reason for PAN's last-place showing in the election. Observers on both sides of the border have been looking toward last weekend's election for months, if not years, feeling that any kind of change would be better than the carnage that accompanied the current administration. For Mexicans living in the violence-wracked regions it is a matter of life or death. But many of the areas most plagued by violence are home to Mexico's most historic and soulful destinations, and the violence has also made tourists skittish, feeling unnecessarily uneasy even in parts of the country untouched by violence and sometimes avoiding the country altogether.

One thing Calderón got right is his tourism policy. He has been Mexico's biggest promoter, appearing at events that most heads of state would sniff at and leading Peter Greenburg, one America's foremost travel journalists, through the country on a "Royal Tour" last fall. Perhaps most important, he appointed Gloria Guevara tourism secretary in 2010.

I'm sure that all the accolades about her business acumen are well-deserved. She not only resuscitated Mexico's tourism industry after the nosedive that followed the H1N1 flu scare, a deepening recession and accelerating drug violence and but helped bring in a record number of foreign visitors last year. She has launched unusual promotional campaigns that effectively dispelled many tourists' doubts that they would be safe in most of the country. ). Even in the weeks leading up to the election, she signed agreements with Britain, Spain and Peru to cooperate on increasing tourism between Mexico and those countries.

But what has won my admiration is her focus — after decades of governmental infatuation with Cancún spinoffs that appeared destined to cover every last grain of the country's sand — on Mexico's cultural destinations, those smaller cities and villages steeped in history, tradition, unique cuisine and down-to-earth people. She set up more than 20 historical routes to commemorate Mexico's bicentennial year (some of which, it must be noted, are in the middle of areas prone to drug-related violence), revitalized the Magic Pueblos program and is working with Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras this year on a Mayan World tourist trail to coincide with the worldwide obsession with the end of a 5,000-year cycle of the Maya calendar.


It's too soon to know whether Peña Nieto will grab the baton for Calderón's tourism boosterism. He hasn't named his tourism secretary yet, but there is plenty of precedence for tourism secretaries spanning administrations (and also for leaving and being replaced in the middle of an administration). It's hard to see how he could do better than Guevara.

In the days since his election, Peña Nieto has been focusing on quelling apprehensions at home and abroad that he will bring back the bad old days of PRI corruption. His statements suggest his party has abandoned its historical, prickly nationalism and wants to cooperate with the United States and other nations on issues of security and trade. He's been pushing reforms such as privatizing PEMEX, the state-owned oil company, bolstering the country's education system and overhauling the health care system, old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.

Tourism understandably comes farther down the list, but Peña Nieto has given some indications in public statements during his campaign. In an address to tourism entrepreneurs and officials at the National Tourism Forum X in the Riviera Maya in May, he promised to create a fund to modernize the tourist infrastructure and support new tourist destinations and advocated giving the Mexico Tourism Board more means to promote the country. He also declared that economic growth must be in harmony with environmental protection.

And he has stated the obvious on more than one occasion: Tourism will be stalled as long as the rest of the world perceives Mexico as a violent country. He told tourism forum attendees that promotion of Mexico's tourism destinations in order to improve Mexico's image is a priority. In a syndicated op-ed piece published in June, he outlined a five-point program to combat drug violence in cooperation with the United States and Canada: included addressing Mexico's "unacceptable poverty and inequality rates"; reforming the judicial process; professionalizing the police force; moving from diplomatic discourse to cooperative intelligence sharing and information gathering, "particularly among the main drug-producing and drug-consuming nations" in the region; and developing a joint border-management agency to promote trade, education and commerce as well as security.

Peña Nieto has promised to reduce homicides in Mexico by 50 percent, and he said in his victory speech that he will focus more on curbing violence and less on hunting down cartel leaders. Though he has unequivocally denied that he will make a pact with the cartels, some Mexicans, and many American officials, worry that this may mean a return to a tacit agreement with the cartels, allowing their business to continue in return for ending the killing on Mexico's streets.

As he said last month that he would, Peña-Nieto named Gen. Oscar Naranjo his national security adviser on Monday. The Colombian drug war hero was instrumental in bringing down Pablo Escobar in the 1990s and is credited with dismantling the country's drug-trafficking network. Naranjo's history of collaboration with U.S. narcotics officials has sparked intense speculation about what that means for Mexico's drug war under the new president.

Many more questions and answers will come before Peña-Nieto takes office in December, but it will be nearly five months before we begin to see how much of it becomes reality.



Anonymous comments are disabled