Mexico's secretary of tourism, Enrique de la Madrid, was en route to Tourism Expo Japan, aka JATA, when news reached him that a strong earthquake had shaken Mexico City
He landed and, as quickly as possible, returned home.
It has been a challenging year for the secretary. Even before two earthquakes struck the country in quick succession, its tourism industry had been playing defense against a lot of bad press, including allegations of tainted alcohol at resorts, violence in Los Cabos, price gouging by emergency medical facilities, corrupt policing, resort managers who are indifferent to serious incidents and an increase in anti-American sentiment among Mexicans.
But Monday, the country is throwing some offense into the mix, launching its first new major marketing campaign in four years: "Mexico, a World of Its Own."
I spoke with de la Madrid this week about a diverse range of issues. His emotions ranged from sadness and sympathy for the victims of the earthquake to optimism and resolve that even the thorniest of issues could be addressed. Creeping into his voice at times was frustration at what he sees as misperceptions that haunt and hinder development in his country.
Many destination tourism boards have a protocol of shutting down all promotion in the aftermath of a dramatic event, yet Monday, five days after a strong earthquake that has dominated international news cycles, the first marketing campaign in four years will be launched. I asked if the timing was intentional.
Enrique de la Madrid
"The date had already been set, and at the end of the day, the main destinations of the country had not been affected at all," he said. "And even in Mexico City, the tourist areas were not affected. We decided it was more important than ever to let everyone know we're still standing. If people are wondering how to help support Mexico, the answer is to travel to Mexico."
He maintained that the capital city was open for business.
"It's such a big city, and 38 buildings fell down, mostly in areas tourists would not have visited," he said. "We're reviewing the condition of others. But in terms of tourism, only 4,000 of 50,000 rooms were evacuated or are under review. Our infrastructure was mostly unaffected. It's very sad that 100 people died [in Mexico City]. Each life is very important. But this is a city of 20 million. I'm willing to say that not only is the rest of Mexico good to visit right now, but so is Mexico City."
The new campaign will focus on the "megadiversity" found in the country, both its places and its citizens.
"We have 50 million indigenous people living here, 64 native languages," de la Madrid said. "And also high-quality service, romance tourism, medical and wellness tourism, meetings, a modern capital. We want travelers to not only explore the country but learn about themselves."
The subtitle of the campaign, he said, is "How far will you go?"
The nagging question is: Will the marketing effort be an effective counterbalance to the negative publicity that has emerged this year? Reports about the alleged serving of tainted alcohol in resort areas were the most high-profile of the issues that surfaced.
De la Madrid asserted it was the government's position that the death of a young woman last winter, which sparked a media storm in July, was unrelated to liquor. Nonetheless, he said, the controversy resulted in a strengthening of the supervision of alcohol distribution and an effort to discourage excessive drinking.
"You're right, we have an issue with irregular alcohol," he said. "But there is a difference between illicit alcohol [which the government confirmed could account for about 40% of all alcohol in Mexico] and tainted alcohol. Most of the illicit alcohol is homemade and not necessarily tainted."
Regarding allegations of price gouging tourists in emergency medical facilities, police corruption and indifference of resort managers to serious incidents reported by guests, de la Madrid said these were taken very seriously.
"We are working on them," he said.
An article in the New York Times connected a rise in violent crime in Los Cabos to drug cartels exploiting the very visible gap between extremely poor residents and wealthy tourists by promising recruits a better life. I asked de la Madrid if he believed a tourism secretary could have an impact on the significant, underlying social problems raised by the Times.
"We do not want to limit the way we see our job as an entity that only promotes the arrival of foreigners to Mexico," he said. "We are a means to help communities develop. We're concerned that the income and benefits of more people coming to Mexico should be distributed in a more equal way, to benefit more people."
He continued: "We're working on a program now that looks at the supplies used in tourism today that are imported but that could be produced locally. And we've signed an agreement with the housing authority to create a pilot program in Los Cabos and Cancun so tourism industry employees can have a house. Inequality in Mexico, and in the U.S., is a source of violence. The ministry of tourism can play a role in combatting that."
Finally, I asked about recent Pew research revealing that 66% of Mexicans have an unfavorable view of the U.S., a dramatic change from two years ago when 65% had a favorable view. While President Trump's policies were cited as the primary factor, wasn't he concerned that Americans reading this would conclude that Mexicans might not be welcoming?
He said that in the first half of the year, arrivals from Americans grew between 11% and 12%.
"We have been telling Mexicans that the North Americans who are going to Mexico are going because they like our culture, our beaches, our food, our people," he said. "They shouldn't confuse the tough language from the administration with Americans who go to Mexico because they love Mexico."
De la Madrid pointed to the bilateral aviation agreement signed by presidents Obama and Pena-Nieto as an example of how cooperation works. "We've added 61 more routes as a consequence," he said.
"We believe that building bridges, not walls, is the best way to develop security with your neighbors," de la Madrid said. "We're tied together by geography, and when Americans get to know Mexicans and Mexicans get to know Americans, both societies become stronger. And there is a lot to learn about Mexico. It's a country to visit many, many times. It really is 'A World of Its Own.'"