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Mexico lives! Cheers for Mexico

Marvin West

Our Lady of Sorrows church in Dolores Hidalgo
Dolores Hidalgo, a Pueblo Magico
© Jane Ammeson, 2010

Come see and taste and smell. Have fun. Soak up some sunshine. Learn something.

Visit a historic hacienda or maybe Pueblos Mágicos — or even a wind farm. Enjoy fresh fruit, veggies, flowers and tacos.

Sing along with the mariachis in the big city, tour museums and cathedrals, pose beside monuments, dine at famous restaurants, relax and watch the plaza multitude.

Hike the hills and appreciate the views, check out colonial treasures and beautiful blankets woven by hand, try a sip of tequila, marvel at the butterflies and white pelicans, nap in a hammock without rolling over, camp on a beach and count waves. Uno, dos, tres....

Explore Chichen Itza and other Maya ruins with complete faith that the world is not winding down.

In spite of what U.S. and Canadian media say and some of our relatives think, Mexico is OK. It has done a really good job of bouncing back, polishing its image and pretending the drug war is almost over.

A multi-million-dollar advertising campaign did it. Tourism was revived. There is even a hint of optimism in the economy.

The improved outlook and the bill are gifts from the old president to the new. The face of leadership is changing but the country will undoubtedly stay the course. The hard part is finished. The lights are back on.

Felipe Calderón Hinojosa launched the war against organized crime in 2006. It did not go well. The swine flu scare was probably not his fault. I don't know who caused the sagging economy.

In 2009, tourism godfathers noticed a shortfall and declared that Mexico was projecting insecurity and unhealthiness. Violence was eroding the image as an idyllic vacation destination. Profits gleaned from foreigners dropped 15 per cent. A cruise ship didn't stop.

Do something!

Calderon did.

There was a general refurbishing for the bicentennial. Attractions were added. Roads were improved. Word got out. Potential tourists raised eyebrows.

The serious situation persisted. According to the central bank, overall foreign tourism in 2010 was still 6.3 percent below 2008. The first half of 2011 saw a 2 percent decline from the same period of 2010. The take from ships to shore declined 9.3 percent.

The prez threw more pesos at the problem. He even turned into a tour guide. It has been said that he figuratively went out on a limb and literally into cenotes and caverns, up a river with a paddle and round and around a few magnificent pyramids.

At 50 and balding, he became a daring video star. With a wide wave of his arm, he said look what you are missing in Mexico. One of his best punch lines, while swinging on a rope or jungle vine, was "I have other duties that are more dangerous."

Calderon tossed in another handful of coins. Gloria Guevara Manzo, his secretary of tourism, spent wisely. She smiled a lot and convinced me that things are not so bad and are getting better.

There was an international roadshow for tour operators. There were familiarization trips for media, all expenses paid, to promote sights and sounds and everything from fancy fashions to cuisine. There were magazine ads about all the above plus the spectacular scenery. Condé Nast Traveler, Glamour, GQ, Vanity Fair, Bon Appétit and Vogue got some of the loot.

The focus was broadened. If Americans want to be reluctant, if Canadians are too careful, tempt and lure others.

Results? Mexico actually attracted a 77 percent increase in Russian visitors, up from not many. There was a 61 jump from Brazil and a 38 bump from Venezuela. More Japanese and three Koreans came. The number of travelers from the U.S. dropped 1 percent.

It was a multi-faceted recruiting job. Gloria actually bought bloggers to put smiley faces on their Mexican web stories. I kid you not.

The really big move was hiring the Ogilvy public relations people, a global outfit that won a silver medal for crisis management, for Mexico Tourism Board's Fighting Fire with Fire: Resetting the Media Dialogue for Mexico. Top talent costs. Mexico spent.

This year, it allotted $130 million for marketing. Public relations got $50 million, up five-fold from 2010. When highway holdups, beheadings, kidnappings and mass graves crashed into the news, there was an immediate counter-attack: Small sample, one place, one time. Mexico is a very big country and 98.7 percent safe and sound, mostly clean air, gates wide open, good times waiting. Don't miss the cactus and Joshua trees.

After Texas told the spring-break gang not to go there, stay home, stay alive, Mexico counted the Cancun crowd and announced a pleasant increase over recent years. When the U.S. State Department issued travel warnings about on-going violence and persistent security concerns, Mexico said be more specific, tell it like it is who, what, when and where?

The positive reinforcement system was tested with negativity. In May, 18 headless bodies were dumped in Guadalajara. In previous times, the government would have stuck its head in the sand, not noticed the atrocity, or, at most, insisted it was just bad guys killing other bad guys.

This time, there was an immediate professional response, probably rehearsed. National and local authorities declared Mexico is safe for tourists, that the murder rate is lower than many countries, that most problems are a thousand kilometers or more from popular vacation spots. The next sentence said it is unfair to paint Mexico with a broad brush. So many places are almost always very safe and sound.

Gloria Guevara Manzo, 45, that tourism secretary, did not arrive on a turnip truck. She is a business graduate of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. She sees tourism for what it is, very big business. "We had the choice of having someone saying what they believe about Mexico or the option of being proactive and communicating our side of the story."

Calderon caught the spirit. "We must tell everyone that we are a strong country, with unity and a unique identity. Despite the trials we have undergone, Mexico is united and pulling through."

Easy it isn't but keep up the sales pitch. Share the wealth.

I say, in the name of more objective disclosure — since I am not in government or on the PR payroll — crime continues, moves around and can change in intensity from hour to hour. Our philosophy is don't try to find it and maybe it won't find you.

Mexican tourism officials predict this year will finish with a record 24.7 million foreign visitors.

I have never believed official government statistics, here or elsewhere. Governments have agendas. Mid-sized politicians are always running for the next election. Some sell phony goods. Some stretch the truth. Some just lie.

I do believe my eyes. More tourists are coming to Mexico, maybe not in droves but enough to call it a trend, an upswing. When the world economy gets well (hurry USA, please hurry), expect a crowd.

Visiting Mexico this winter is logical, especially for those who must endure bad weather. The exchange rate is favorable. Fifteen years ago, improved temperatures and moderate costs were our first reasons. We discovered many other attractions.

Now, warm sunshine and a few extra pesos are just added blessings.


Published or Updated on: November 29, 2012 by Marvin West © 2012
Contact Marvin West

Marvin West, mostly retired after just 42 years with Scripps Howard newspapers, is senior partner in an international communications consulting company. This column is from his forthcoming book, “Mexico? What you doing in Mexico?”  West invites reader reaction; his address is

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