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Mexico Battles ‘Sun, Sea and Severed Heads’ Image
email this pageprint this pageemail usTavia Grant - Globe and Mail
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December 21, 2010

TRAVEL LOG: Canadian residents spending at least one night in Mexico.

2000 - 691,900
2001 - 688,600
2002 - 607,400
2003 - 715,800
2004 - 705,200
2005 - 794,400
2006 - 841,300
2007 - 1,019,000
2008 - 1,124,500
2009 - 1,208,600
Mexico wants to sharply boost tourism by luring Canadians to explore the country beyond its seaside resorts. First, though, it’s got an image problem to fix.

The country is currently the world’s 10th-most-visited tourism destination, yet it ranks only 19th in terms of tourism spending. That’s because many visitors, mindful of well publicized dangers, never leave their resort perimeters.

To change that, Latin America’s second-largest economy is trying to sell its culture to the world. Forget headlines of violent drug cartels, 14-year-old assassins, severed heads and gas explosions. Mexico is trumpeting a bounty of attractions: adventure travel, golf, gourmet food and wine, monarch butterfly tourism, hunting, and 36 designated “pueblos magicos” – magical villages with colonial architecture, colourful fiestas or natural beauty.

The question is whether the world will listen.

“We have to work very hard to improve our image of Mexico here,” said Alberto Lozano, spokesman for the Mexican embassy in Ottawa. “There is a distorted perception.”

He quickly rattles off statistics. Of 5.1 million visits in the past four years, only 20 Canadians have died while in Mexico, and almost all were accidental deaths, with alcohol playing a role in many (seven, he says, were falls from balconies).

The stakes are high. Tourism is Mexico's third-largest industry after oil and remittances (money sent home), and Canada is an integral part of that. Visitors from the U.S. and Canada are the most frequent, though per capita, Canadians visit Mexico at twice the rate as Americans. And they tend to stay longer, unlike Americans who often zip across the border for just the day.

Mexico’s tourist numbers have bounced back this year, after swine flu, the recession and safety concerns battered the industry last year – even as spending lags.

Heat-seeking Canadians are flocking to the country, or at least its resorts. The number of visits has increased for the past five years straight, amid discounted package deals, and 2010 is on track to surpass last year's levels.

The country expects 1.5 million Canadians will visit Mexico this year. Its government wants to double that to three million in the coming years.

Achieving that goal is unlikely in the next several years, says Jean Francois Mayer, a professor at Concordia University who specializes in Latin America and has lived in Mexico. “It has a lot of cultural resources to offer – from architecture to art shows, music, festivals and gastronomy. But the problem is safety and security.”

Boosting spending is another challenge, given that Canadian travel agents aren’t exactly urging visitors to explore. “I’m telling them to stay on the resort properties, not to venture out. They should stay on busy streets, and not befriend anyone,” says Colette Brown, Montreal-based travel agent at House of Travel.

Apprehension is growing. Groups like “Boycott Mexico” and “People concerned by the killing of Canadians in Mexico” have popped up on Facebook. Focus groups on Canadians’ perceptions of Mexico by public relations agency Fleishman Hillard last year showed stereotypes – sombreros, tequila, drugs and violence – persist.

It has not been helped by the graphic, and public nature of some executions among cartels in the north, nor by the fact that nearly 30,000 Mexicans have died since 2006 in the drug-related conflict. Most of that violence is far from tourist spots. But not all: On Sept. 30, gunmen seized 20 Mexican tourists in broad daylight in Acapulco. Their bodies were found in a mass grave last month.

The violence is attracting growing attention. “Sun, sea and severed heads,” was the first phrase in a recent Economist article. The federal government’s travel advisory says “due to a deterioration in the security situation” in much of the country, Canadians should exercise a “high degree” of caution. While most tourist areas haven’t been hit by the violence, the government advises people to travel by air. And it says high levels of criminal activity remain a concern throughout the country.

It’s not the message Mexico can use to coax people into the countryside. And not something many Mexican officials want to talk about.

Alejandro Moreno, the country's undersecretary of tourism operations, was a keynote speaker at a forum on Mexico’s economy last month in Toronto. He spoke about the new drive to promote the country’s culture, its slogan – “Come visit Mexico – the place you thought you knew” – and ecotourism (acknowledging they have come later to the sustainability game than other countries).

A member of the audience asked what the government makes of Canadian concerns over safety and about headlines of homicides. “We want to talk about the good things,” he replied. “We want to create a new, fresh impression.”

It’s an opportunity missed, says Alfred DuPuy, executive director at the global brand consultancy Interbrand Canada. He believes the Mexican government must address these topics more directly if it wants to reassure worried visitors. “To try to ignore it or shy away from it is a mistake.”

The better strategy is one of transparency and authenticity, one that responds to peoples' concerns, Mr. DuPuy says. “You have to acknowledge it, and say ‘Yes we have challenges, but this is what we’re doing.’ ”

Mexico might even take a page from a country to its south – Colombia. Tourist officials there are quick to trot out crime statistics, which show the progress made, while acknowledging there’s still work to be done. Its own tourist catchphrase cheekily refers to lingering perceptions: “Colombia,” it says, “the only risk is wanting to stay.”

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