In the first five months of Mexico president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's administration, many whose livelihood depends on that country's tourism industry have seemed shellshocked.
An airport expansion project in Mexico City, more than 30% complete, was abruptly canceled.
The Tourism Promotion Council of Mexico, aka Consejo, aka the Mexico Tourism Board, was dissolved, its employees dismissed and its offices shuttered.
Money that had funded Consejo was earmarked to build a "Maya Train" through areas of the country where only a small percentage of visitors now travel.
The responsibility to promote tourism internationally was transferred from the secretary of tourism to the secretary of foreign affairs; embassies and consulates around the world were tapped to absorb Mexico's global tourism outreach efforts, but scant details were forthcoming about how that would be accomplished.
Even to those who acknowledged the need to shake up the tourism board, it seemed that AMLO (as the president is popularly known) lacked a basic understanding of the need to promote Mexico tourism in the face of increasing global competition. Or he was indifferent to tourism's economic importance. Or he was simply hostile to legacy tourism efforts and institutions.
But during the first full week of May, evidence began to emerge that international tourism is not being ignored. On May 2, Marcelo Ebrard, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and Ignacio Cabrera, the newly appointed director-general of international tourism promotion, met with six representatives of domestic tourism from the private sector.
On May 6, for the first time since being elected president, AMLO discussed the importance of tourism in his daily press conference. Also on that day, Ebrard asked Cabrera to deliver the first draft of a plan to promote international tourism, due by May 21. He also asked Cabrera to initiate a pilot program in Los Cabos that would bring infrastructure, services and schools to poor areas of the region and serve as a prototype for improving the standard of living for workers in resort areas.
The following day, AMLO traveled to Cancun to assess the problem of sargassum, the seaweed that has plagued Mexican beaches (and tourists and resort owners).
As he did so, I was in Mexico City, meeting with Cabrera. He had agreed to give his first interview with international media to Travel Weekly.
Who is Ignacio Cabrera?
An architect by training, Cabrera has served at the municipal, state and federal levels of government, typically appointed to develop plans for large-scale public projects ranging from housing to prisons. He met Ebrard, his current boss, while working on housing projects in Mexico City. Cabrera also served as secretary of tourism for the state of Sonora, developing strategies aimed at luring residents of nearby Arizona and California.
"Yesterday, something important happened," he told me, referencing the president's support of tourism at his news conference. "He was insistent about the importance of tourism and what it represents to Mexico. Now we have his attention, and tourism is becoming one of the priorities of the government. His mentality has started to change."
Cabrera feels the pressure of coming up with a draft for a new approach to international tourism in just two weeks, but from what he told me during our 90-minute conversation, he and Ebrard have already given it quite a bit of thought.
I would characterize his assignment as "complicated" only because I can't think of a word more intense than complicated to describe the challenge. He is not, with the dissolution of the Mexico Tourism Board, simply tasked with reinventing the wheel. Rather, he must come up with something as effective as a wheel that will traverse an infinitely more complex landscape.
He must work under the rules of an accord made with Secretary of Tourism Miguel Torruco, which not only splits responsibilities and resources with Torruco's secretariat but requires the two agencies to work in partnership in areas where responsibilities overlap.
He must work with the Secretary of the Economy because the Foreign Affairs Ministry has also taken over the former responsibilities of Promexico, an organization that had been promoting investment in industrial development in Mexico but has also been eliminated by the current administration. Consular personnel who will be assigned to promote tourism will also be assigned to promote investment for all industries.
One senses that Cabrera and Ebrard are optimists; what I consider "complicated," Cabrera describes as "complementary." One thing that will work in their favor is that, in matters of coordination among the different ministries, it is the foreign ministry that "leads." It appears to be first among equals.
While there have been initial internet-based discussions about tourism-related duties with the staffs in Mexico's 80 embassies and 70 consulates around the world, formal tourism training will begin in August. (Cabrera noted that, of the 70 consulates, 50 are located in the U.S. and Canada.) One employee in each outpost and every ambassador will undergo what Cabrera described as an "intense," 40-hour training course designed in consultation with the Ministry of Tourism by the Foreign Affairs' Matias Romero Institute, which trains career diplomats.
The ambassadors' training will be mandatory, he said, to ensure they are in "the right frame of mind" to keep tourism as a priority.
While the outline of consumer-facing diplomatic tourism has now been articulated, another aspect of tourism promotion remains less defined. The private sector, from domestic hoteliers to international wholesalers and travel agencies, had always played a role in the direction of promotions while also receiving assistance from the now-defunct tourism board in the form of co-op advertising and promotional activities.
Cabrera said that one of the first things Ebrard asked him to do was to reach out to the private sector. He has since had conversations with many prominent industry executives in Mexico and abroad, including Alex Zozaya, CEO of Apple Leisure Group, which sends more Americans to Mexico than any other company.
But private-sector involvement at this point is still only in the discussion stage. Cabrera said the project he must deliver before the end of the month will include plans for "an entity" that will define a partnership of some kind among various constituents from the public and private sectors.
The meeting the previous week between Ebrard and Cabrera with six domestic private-sector tourism leaders -- primarily hotel owners representing various regions, but also an official from the national association representing the interests of tourism enterprises -- was, Cabrera said, "a very satisfactory meeting for both sides and a great beginning."
Still, he hasn't yet formulated a mechanism for formal input or defined exactly what role the private sector will play. It doesn't yet have a name, he said, but "it's started, it's on the way." He acknowledged that private-sector partnerships are "vital."
It's possible that the reasons the president is paying more attention to tourism have less to do with macroeconomics (tourism represents almost 9% of gross domestic product) than with underlying statistics that reflect his goals regarding social justice. In addition to his insistence that communities adjacent to resort areas, in the words of Cabrera, "level up," he noted that the tourism industry in Mexico employs the largest number of males age 18 to 27 and the greatest number of female workers of all ages in the country.
There is some acknowledgement that tourism was initially a victim -- unintended, Cabrera said -- of ideology. Much of the consolidation AMLO effected among federal institutions was in the name of austerity. It was not as if the president woke up one morning and decided not to support tourism, he asserted. Rather, "it was very, very bad for the tourism office, obviously. There is a larger plan [AMLO] has for the country, and unfortunately, tourism was touched."
The underlying philosophical approach is not being abandoned, he said.
"In the main resort areas -- Cancun, Riviera Maya, Los Cabos, Mazatlan -- there are two worlds," Cabrera said. "In one, there is glamour, sophistication, five-star hotels and service. In the other are poor, marginalized people. While the hotels and the industry have grown, on the other side, it's not even close. The idea is to plan the tourism industry as a whole, [taking into consideration] the hotels and how the people who work in the hotels live. So, we're starting to try to help those municipalities with infrastructure, services and schools to make it more even."
With the dissolution of the tourism board, Cabrera and Ebrard worked to see "in which way, with whom and how we could replace [the lost services]," Cabrera said. "Diplomatic tourism" and establishing "relationships between government offices and the private sector in tourism" emerged as the solution. He said he is also working with state and resort-area tourism-promotion groups.
One service that had been provided by the tourism board that does not have an obvious parallel in the current structure is the development of national brand strategies and coordinated public relations campaigns in response to possible crises.
"We have a group of entrepreneurs on the project who can help develop [branding] strategies," Cabrera said.
Wholesalers and travel advisors in the U.S. will eventually have defined channels to work with Tourism and Foreign Affairs secretariats, he said, though they should anticipate that promotions will take different forms than before.
"We don't have the budget to go to a tourism fair in Berlin and win first prize [for booth display]," he said. "That's gone. It's going to be more difficult."
As regards crisis response, "the president himself is in Cancun today looking at the issue of sargassum," Cabrera said. Depending on the nature of a crisis, different government agencies might step up.
For sargassum, the responsibility would fall to the Interior Ministry, but AMLO also named Fonatur, a development arm of the Tourism Ministry, to coordinate municipal, state and federal agencies. He also used the sargassum issue to sound the alarm for addressing climate change, which is blamed for the spread of the noxious seaweed.
Issues around drug cartel violence will be dealt with through the Ministry of Security and "new and better coordination among security forces at the state and national levels."
"Security is a national priority and not only for tourism," he said. "Fortunately, violence has not been specifically directed at visitors. But what's important is perception, because perception becomes reality."
Serving as translator during the interview was Marcos Fastlicht, a wealthy Mexico City contractor and real estate developer who has been a close friend of the president for more than 20 years. Although most of the holdings in his company, Grupo K, are unrelated to tourism, he owns the W Hotel in Punta Mita in the state of Nayarit.
Fastlicht serves as an unofficial advisor to the president in several areas, tourism among them. At the conclusion of the interview, I suggested to him that the president's approach of pressing the reset button on entire industries carried greater risk than a more incremental approach might have.
"Nothing with this president is slow or quiet," Fastlicht responded. "Nothing! The things he's doing, of course there's some risk to it. But he's the president. He has to take chances."