Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Mexico's secretary of tourism, Enrique de la Madrid, has several reasons to feel sanguine. International arrivals were up 11% in 2017, and the increase in U.S. arrivals matched the overall average, despite a spate of reports on drug-cartel violence spilling into tourist areas, allegations of tainted alcohol, an earthquake and a period of elevated U.S. State Department travel advisories.

He is enthusiastic about a newly launched campaign targeting Mexican-Americans to "viajemos todos por Mexico" -- travel throughout all of Mexico, rather than just visiting relatives -- which mirrors a campaign that successfully increased domestic tourism.

And he is optimistic that Mexico will take another step in the United Nations World Tourism Organization global rankings, moving from the eighth-most visited country to seventh, continuing an impressive rise from No. 15 just five years ago.

But it has not been a smooth upward journey. I spoke to him last week just a day after the lifting of an embassy advisory that forbade U.S. government employees from visiting Playa del Carmen or taking the ferry from there to Cozumel. The ban was instituted after an explosion on a ferry injured 19 Mexicans and five tourists earlier this month.

Over the past decade, the incidences of earthquakes or narcotrafficker violence have risen and fallen, but the presence of U.S. State Department travel advisories about portions of Mexico has been a constant. Whatever success Mexico tourism has enjoyed, industry players can only imagine how good things might have been if advisories had not been a drag on visitation from the U.S., Mexico's largest inbound market.

Secretary de la Madrid is careful to note that "we respect the authority of the State Department to issue the warnings" and believes it has made "best efforts."

But he also asserted that the outcome isn't fair.

The problem, he said, is that the crime statistics that form the basis for the State Department warnings are disconnected from the actual risks Americans face in tourist areas.

"If Mexico issued alerts, those for the United States would outnumber the ones for Mexico," he said. "Today, [a shooter in a] Maryland [school], yesterday, [a bomb in Austin,] Texas. The bomb in the subway in New York. The issues in Las Vegas. Tourists were killed [when a terrorist drove a truck onto a bicycle path] in New York.

"If I were watching the crime rate in Chicago, I might say, 'Well, let's not go to Chicago.' But as a sophisticated traveler, you know these things happen in specific areas. It's not going to happen to you. So what's unfair is that reality -- statistics -- are distorted. If you visit Chicago as a tourist, your level of risk is not high, regardless of the murder rate. And similarly, there could be an incident in Cancun, far from the tourist areas, but as a visitor you will not even be aware it happened."

De la Madrid said he is considering creating a "traveler risk index" to balance statistics and on-the-ground reality for tourists.

"We have security issues, as there are security issues everywhere," he said. "We take them seriously, but we do not accept that we're a less secure country than even the United States. We take very special care of Americans going to Mexico."

Although he did not characterize the launch of a campaign targeting Mexican-Americans as a fill-in for more skittish U.S. travelers, de la Madrid acknowledged that Mexican-Americans' deeper understanding of the country's geography, culture and local security situations makes them an appealing target.

"There are 35 million Mexican-Americans -- 11% of the U.S. population -- and it's a population that has economic resources," de la Madrid said. "They tend to travel as much as any other Americans, and a higher proportion already travel to Mexico. So we're working with travel agents and tour operators, putting together packages and pricing for them."

He added: "It's very common for Mexican-Americans to go back to see their grandparents and probably stay there for a week. But we want to invite them to travel around Mexico with their grandparents and relatives. We want them to experience the gastronomy, culture, history, diversity and natural attractions, because it's part of their heritage."

While de la Madrid feels the country is late in launching an initiative targeting the Mexican diaspora, he also feels the current atmosphere will add resonance to the appeal.

"The political dialog between Mexico and the U.S. is tense, and a lot of the information that has been said about Mexicans in the U.S. is totally untrue," he said. "So for them to be invited to visit, to let their kids or grandkids get to know the place where they come from, at the end of the day, even those who are very well integrated into U.S. culture will want a better understanding of where they came from. It will strengthen their identity. This goes beyond tourism, no?"

Yes. Heritage tourism is a proven niche that should get traction for all the reasons de la Madrid stated.

And I very much like what could be a pioneering concept in tourism, one that could be broadly adopted: a traveler risk index. State Department advisories, even restructured, lack the nuance to make them truly useful for travelers.


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