Dispatch, Mexico 3: One too many bald jokes

KKMEX162x120Less than a month after the U.S. lifted its warning on travel to Mexico, Destinations Editor Ken Kiesnoski traveled to Mexico City and Cancun to assess the impact of H1N1 swine flu on tourism and daily life. His final dispatch follows.

"Hey, Mr. Clean, I have some hair in here for you!"

After 10 times, I stopped counting how many souvenir hawkers along Playa del Carmen’s main tourist drag, Fifth Avenue, tried to lure me into their knick-knack shops with a variation on that sales pitch (of dubious effectiveness).

The first elicited a laugh ("Very clever!"), the second a grin ("I’ve heard that one before!"), the third … well, you can imagine.

The joke wore thin quickly for this prematurely bald but normally good-humored crackerjack reporter. A grunt and a slightly curled upper lip was all I could or would muster.

(Still, I count my blessings. Mexico’s memorabilia mongers have nothing on their aggressive counterparts in Montego Bay or Cairo, who sometimes get physical during "sales presentations.")

Other, wiser vendors opted for good old-fashioned friendliness ("Como estas, amigo?") or flattery ("Cool tattoo, dude!") rather than insult/jest. They fared better.

Despite having sworn off shopping earlier in the week in Mexico City -- after I’d emptied my pockets of too many pesos at a museum gift shop and a stand full of inexpensive, kitsch and irresistible religious curios at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe -- I walked back to my hotel from my first-ever foray into Playa del Carmen’s mercantile precincts toting a plastic bag packed with overpriced maracas, some sort of gourd-and-glass lighting fixture and a lucha libre wrestling mask in silver lamé and blue.

I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with any of my booty, apart from the mask. (Paired with a silver doublet and wrestling boots, it will be perfect for Halloween.)

But I’m assuaging any feelings of buyer’s remorse with the knowledge that I’m helping out, in my small way, Mexico’s tourism-dependent economy.

MEX-PlayadelCarmenbeachDeflecting the Mr. Clean come-ons and capitulating to the compliments, I strived to detect any increased sense of urgency (or latent hostility) in the vendors’ voices. After all, times are tough.

In the wake of the swine flu crisis that began in April, Mexican resort destinations like Playa del Carmen have seen tourist numbers plummet.

Walter Dagri, sales manager for Real Resorts’ three all-inclusive properties in Playa del Carmen, told me that some 25,000 tourism workers on the Riviera Maya have lost their jobs.

With some hotels still shuttered or just reopening, foreign visitors are thin on the ground -- and in airplanes and on cruise ships. Souvenir sales must be down, too.

Andres Peralta, a vendor at a souvenir shop on Avenida de los Constituyentes, just off Fifth Avenue, confirms my somewhat obvious conclusion.

"Business has been bad," he said, shaking my hand. "I don’t know why, but a lot of people haven’t come here.

"We don’t have any [health] problems and we also don’t have any tourists," Andres added. "Everyone is all right; nobody is sick around here. We want to tell everybody to come to Mexico and enjoy. We’re waiting for you."

His sincerity and friendliness won me over. I forked over another 300 pesos for a couple of his bracelets. Heck, I even asked if he had any hair hanging around.

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