Mexican cities bounce back from tourism woes

Mexican cities bounce back from tourism woes

Guanajuato : Mexico | Jan 04, 2010 at 8:14 AM PST
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In the final days of 2009, the narrow cobblestone sidewalks of Guanajuato overflowed with people toting shopping bags and tugging on listless children's hands. The open-air cafes filled with diners speaking mostly Spanish, but also English, French, and Portuguese. Street-side vendors hawking tickets to Guanajuato's famous guided tours -- called callejoneadas -- energetically chased after the out-of-towners. The centuries-old city called to mind Venice, minus the water.

The presence of visitors in Guanajuato this holiday season was welcome, as Mexico's vacation hotbeds have suffered through a recent run of dismal luck. The global recession, responsible for spikes in unemployment and the worst one-year decline in Mexico's GDP since the Great Depression, was the first big blow to tourist cities. The steadily intensifying drumbeat of drug violence made for another. The April swine flu scare was the final ingredient for a miserable 2009.

According to Mexico's Central Bank, revenues from foreign tourists, thanks to 14 months of decline that ended in October, dropped by about 16 percent in 2009. Mexico's Secretary of Tourism, Rodolfo Elizondo, said at a recent press conference that total tourist revenues fell by almost 11 percent in 2009, or about $1.4 billion. Elizondo said that 2009 was "without a doubt the worst year" through which Mexico's tourist industry had suffered.

The impact on the nation as a whole was significant, as tourism is the third biggest source of foreign currency, after oil sales and remittances. But the impact on cities like Guanajuato was even more pronounced, especially at the height of the flu outbreak.

"No one came," said Gregorio Castillo, a street musician who sings ballads for diners in the city's picturesque plazas. "The tourism let us down. With the flu, I earned nothing, maybe 10 or 20 pesos [a day]," Castillo said, which gave him a daily income of 75 cents to $1.50. Today he says he earns five times that figure.

Sabrina Valtierra, who works at a Starbucks in the heart of Guanajuato's colonial downtown, concurred. "The number of clients was really low," she said. "All the hotel managers said that they were almost completely vacant."

Local business groups say that hotel occupancy in July, more than two months after the flu had been contained, failed to reach 40 percent, far short of what business groups estimate would be necessary for the local establishments to make up for their losses stemming from the outbreak.

The many historic attractions in Guanajuato also suffered. Diego Rivera's museum (the famous muralist was born in Guanajuato) and the Museo de las Momias, which houses the mummified remains of several 19th Century victims of cholera, saw their number of visitors plummet, which also brought fewer wallets to the surrounding area. According to the local daily, the Correo, almost a third of the businesses around the mummy museum folded in the weeks after the flu outbreak.

Unfortunately for the city, the local economy alone is not enough to sustain sales for of the scores of hotels, restaurants, taco vendors, and newsstands that typically thrive in the city. According to the most recent census figures, some 70,000 people live in Guanajuato, but the municipal tourism council estimates that that number can swell by more than 50 percent with the daily influx of almost 40,000 tourists during peak seasons.

"When there's no tourism, there's no one else but those of us who live here," Castillo said.

The present atmosphere in Guanajuato is far different. Nationally, Mexico's tourist hubs are also drifting back toward normalcy. In December, Elizondo declared the negative impact of the swine flu had been overcome, and predicted that the nation's principal beach towns would register up to 80 percent hotel occupancy during the holidays. Guanajuato's hotels were 65 percent full over the same period.

In 2010, the broader economic climate will also bemore favorable to Guanajuato and other Mexican towns: analysts predict that Mexico will grow by almost 3 percent this year, compared to a 7.5 percent decline in 2009.

But the locals' present optimism is tinged with caution. "It's [just] a little bit better," said José Agustín Martínez, who works the streets of Guanajuato selling callejoneadas to passersby.

"It's better now," Castillo said. "Not like in other years, but better."

Elizondo says that while Mexicans' increased travel has fueled the industry's rebound, in cities, like Guanajuato, that rely heavily on foreign visitors, the "recovery has not been with the same speed."

With a few exceptions (notably Mazatlán), foreign travelers are still not flocking to Mexico as they have in years past. In and around Guanajuato, local newspapers and business-owners alike reported that the majority of the visitors who inundated the city were compatriots from Mexico City and Guadalajara, rather than vacationers Houston and London.

One of the ongoing challenges for the industry is to erase the lingering stigma among international tourists of Mexico as ground zero for drug violence. "Our strength is the American clientele," said Julio César Galicia, the owner of a bagel shop in San Miguel de Allende, another colonial town a short distance from Guanajuato. "Because of what they see on the television, either drug trafficking or the flu, [some of] the Americans don't come."

And while Guanajuato is, both geographically and in its levels of violence, a long way from Juárez, there are signs that should worry local officials. According to authorities, the state of Guanajuato (which surrounds the city of the same name) is now among the 10 most violent in the nation. On Jan. 1, the Correo rang in 2010 with a front page that screamed, "Guanajuato: in the crosshairs of the narcos."

But even if drug trafficking remains a tricky problem, epidemiological panics and global economic disasters are not likely to plague Mexico in the near future. Guanajuato is a happier, more crowded place for it.

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Street musician in Guanauato
Gregorio Castillo croons for pesos.
Patrick Corcoran is based in Torreón, Coahuila, Mexico, and is a Stringer on Allvoices.
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