Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Enrique de la Madrid's first career was as a banker, and it clearly informs his approach to his current job as Mexico's secretary of tourism.

"The private sector moves the economy, worldwide," he said in a far-ranging conversation we had in the New York office of the Mexico Tourism Board (MTB) last week. "It is not for us to run hotels, roads, marinas and airlines. It is for us to work closely with the private sector, both Mexican and foreign, to create the atmosphere to promote investment. That is the only way for the economy and employment to grow. It's as simple as that."

Yes, but ... Zika? El Chapo? Security? Drugs?

De la Madrid said that when he took the job, he viewed it in almost purely economic terms, but his thinking has evolved.

"I saw [tourism] as an economic engine, one of the most important economic engines in Mexico," he said. But people corrected him, he said, pointing out its diverse expressions: cultural, recreational, religious, gastronomic, historical and natural attractions.

And, as he came to find out, perceptions about issues unrelated to tourism can impact its economic momentum.

Over the course of an hour, he answered all my questions related to how the Mexico that some Americans read about and see in the news can appear to be at odds with the Mexican vacation experience. His answers, ticking between factual analysis and an understanding of the more visceral experience of travel, demonstrated a sensitivity to both that I think bodes well for the country.

First, he acknowledged the health and security-related issues mentioned earlier, and even raised some other causes for concern, such as climate change.

"We like cold winters," he said. "Our location is one of our assets, and the weather differences [with the United States] are an advantage."

But perceptions cut both ways, he suggested. While some people might be put off by hard news unrelated to tourism that comes out of Mexico, it is not enough of a factor to cause distress at the tourist board.

"We know there is some impact, but we haven't [tracked arrivals with news events]," he said.

But he does look at year-over-year numbers every month, and he said the numbers have been going up steadily for years: "The number of foreign arrivals by air grew 13% last year. For American arrivals, 17%."

Enrique de la Madrid
Enrique de la Madrid

He is further buoyed by changes in bilateral aviation agreements between the U.S. and Mexico that will change the rule that currently restricts operation of point-to-point flights, limiting the number of carriers that can serve each city pair to two. The Department of Transportation has already approved a change to drop that limit, and legislation approving the change is expected to be passed by the Mexico Senate in the current session.

On his swing through the U.S. (de la Madrid also visited Dallas, Washington and San Francisco), he met with executives from Delta, Southwest and American, who he said were all keen to see the change enacted.

Customs and immigration preclearance in Mexican airports is also likely to become available for passengers heading to the U.S. by the end of next year, he said, following changes in Mexican law that would allow U.S. customs officials to carry firearms on Mexican soil.

Mexico's economy has been significantly impacted by the drop in the price of oil, but de la Madrid said he did not see a significant impact on tourism development as a result, in part because of his belief in free markets.

"There is no reason for the government [to fund tourism development], because we have private investment," he said. "It's a strange world today. There is a lot of money looking for return, and we can be facilitators. And [MTB] funding doesn't come primarily from the [federal] budget, but more from tourists arriving in Mexico."

He said that tourism was not the only driver of the proposal to build a rail line between Cancun and Merida, adding that the project's cancellation was the result of a government reordering of non-touristic priorities.

The MTB's primary role is in marketing, he said, though it will also get involved in infrastructure projects such as water treatment plants. Or, for example, collecting sargassum seaweed so it won't foul beaches.

But beyond that, his focus is on "consolidating destinations where the government has invested heavily but it has not lived up to its potential."

"For instance, Huatulco," he said. "Now, there are 3,500 rooms. We're proposing to the private sector that we partner with them to construct hotels. I'd like to see an additional 1,500 to 2,000 rooms by the end of this administration, which is what we need to increase airlift. If that works, then we can move on to Ixtapa and Loreto, where we have already invested a lot in infrastructure but they did not grow at the rate we expected."

He emphasized, "These are not subsidies. They are partnerships, and our hope is to eventually get out, to have the partners buy us out."

He is also looking to expand concessions in other aspects of infrastructure.

"We find a close relationship between tourism and roads," he said. "We can provide concessions for roads to be built by the private sector."

Earlier on the day we spoke, the MTB issued a statement saying that Zika was not a threat to tourists to Mexico. While acknowledging 34 cases, the statement said that none were in resort areas and that mosquito abatement protocols already in place to reduce the risk of dengue fever and Chikungunya (both of which are carried by the same mosquito species that can transmit Zika) reduce the risk of Zika, as well.

I asked if it was inevitable that it would eventually show up in resort areas.

Currently, he said, it has not even appeared in states adjacent to major resorts.

"It is far away," he said. "If it does show up at resort areas, the industry and public will be informed. We are not going to cover anything up."

As regards narco-trafficking, he acknowledged that "security is an issue. It's an issue for us Mexicans. We want to have a safer country. But we also recognize that things have been improving in Ciudad Juarez, in Chihuahua. Drug dealing is a worldwide problem. We'll do our part, but it requires a global discussion."
El Chapo? "When he escaped, it was very bad news. So to be consistent, it was very good news when he was recaptured."

That last answer is somewhat pat, but it led to a more meaningful discussion on relations between Mexico and the U.S. and tourism's role in those relations.

"Sometimes between Mexico and the U.S., there are misconceptions, but tourism is the best ambassador, the best way to get closer," he said. "Yes, we have great oceans, deserts and mountains, but our biggest assets are Mexicans interacting with visitors. This is a service industry, and Mexicans are very open, candid and friendly. I heard recently an expression I really liked: that instead of just moving the umbrella on the beach, we move the sun."

What did he think about the way Mexicans were portrayed in discussion of immigration during U.S. presidential primaries?

"Of course, we don't like to be bashed by anyone," he said. "But politicians oversimplify, and people want simple solutions to complex problems. In so many ways, the closer the relationship between the two countries, the better it is for both."

At the end of our hour, de la Madrid struck me as the type of politician that we need more of on both sides of the border: Pragmatic and optimistic, solution-oriented and non-ideological.

One who would much rather tear down a wall than build one.

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