Still reeling from the perception that the country was unsafe to visit due to drug-related violence along its border, Mexico's $13 billion tourism industry was dealt another devastating blow by a swine flu outbreak that originated near Mexico City and has since spread well beyond its borders.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta recommended on Monday that Americans "avoid all nonessential travel" to Mexico (see "U.S. issues travel alert for Mexico."); similar advisories have been delivered by the U.K., France, Germany, Australia and Canada.
The CDC said suspected cases of swine flu have been reported in 19 of Mexico's 32 states, with some 2,000 people hospitalized with severe flu-like symptoms and pneumonia.
Although the scope and severity of the swine flu outbreak is still unclear, recent worldwide health scares have dealt a severe blow to tourism in affected countries.
For example, during the 2002-2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in parts of Asia, travel to the region plunged.
SARS, which killed more than 700 people and sickened hundreds more, was blamed for a 20% reduction in air traffic to the region.
Fearing the spread of SARS, some countries in Asia closed their borders to visitors from mainland China and Hong Kong, while others instituted strict health screenings at airports and border crossings.
Short of restricting travel across its borders, Mexican authorities are on overdrive to help stem the spread of the flu.
At the urging of Mexican health authorities, schools throughout Mexico will be closed until May 6.
In Mexico City and its environs, virtually all public gatherings were canceled and the capital city's tourist attractions and historical sites closed.
Mexican health authorities report that swine flu screenings have been initiated at airports and land borders for travelers departing Mexico, with health workers asking travelers who exhibit flu-like symptoms to submit to "voluntary" physical examination.
At press time, none of the airlines that serve Mexico had canceled flights because of the outbreak, although many were waiving cancellation fees and allowing passengers to reroute without penalties.
Many of the top U.S. tour operators to Mexico are also waiving cancellation fees, and others are offering full credits to customers who choose an alternate destination.
Noting that no government has officially banned travel to Mexico, the Mexico Tourism Board said it is nonetheless "encouraging travelers to follow the preventive measures recommended" by agencies such as the CDC and Mexican health authorities. "At this time, our No. 1 priority is to maintain the health and well-being of our tourists," the tourism board said.