Mexico’s new leftwing government has big plans for tourism. According to President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s 2019-2024 National Tourism Strategy, the government wants to focus its efforts on promoting under-appreciated communities, while also chasing the hearts and minds of big spending holidaymakers from the likes of not only the US, but also Asia, Russia and Gulf states.
“Efforts have already begun to position Mexico as a competitive tourist [destination] … and for this sector to be a pillar for the fair and balanced development between communities and regions,” the government said in a statement.
According to that same statement, AMLO’s administration is pursuing five key projects to promote tourism, the largest of which is the controversial Tren Maya. This rail line will connect the gringo playground of Cancun to cultural and historic sites throughout southern Mexico, including the Mayan ruins of Palenque. While advocates say the train will bring new sources of revenue to communities along its route, environmental activists have warned the construction could threaten rare species like the jaguar.
Despite these environmental concerns, its inarguable that efforts to promote Mexico as a tourist destination have the potential to genuinely benefit the tens of thousands of Mexicans who are directly and indirectly employed in the sector. The industry is worth over US$20 billion, making it the nation’s third largest source of foreign income (after oil and remittances). In 2018, the country enjoyed a record tourist intake, and was the most-visited international destination for US travellers.
Given these encouraging signs, it makes sense for AMLO to look closely at tourism as a serious source of revenue to fund his ambitious initiatives in infrastructure development, education and welfare. On the other hand, here’s something that doesn’t make sense: kicking off the National Tourism Strategy by liquidating the entire national tourism board.
Officially the Tourism Promotion Council of Mexico (CPTM), until recently the board managed offices across Mexico and abroad. Along with providing information for tourists, some of these offices also served to educate locals on how to engage with the tourism sector. These resources are supplemented by an online training course for Mexican entrepreneurs.
A personal note
In my own personal experience, I’ve found these offices essential for travel in some lesser-known regions. In some small towns with limited infrastructure, the local tourism office was occasionally the only reliable source of information I had at my disposal. Not only that, but one of my favourite things about these offices is how the staff would routinely suggest nearby side-trips that I’d never considered. Without these resources, my series highlighting pueblos magicos probably wouldn’t have been possible.
No more CPTM
As of February, these offices no longer exist, striking a blow to domestic tourists. Meanwhile, the effects are already being felt abroad. Most of the CPTM’s international offices have also been reported closed, with just a handful of downsized outposts remaining in cities like Tokyo, New York and Berlin. Ultimately though, the biggest question really comes down to the bottom line: how will Mexico’s tourism industry fare without a dedicated tourist board? Your guess is as good as mine, but there are already some deeply concerning signs. Take Mexico’s performance at ITB Berlin earlier this month. As the largest tourism trade fair in the world, IBT 2019 was the perfect moment for AMLO to start his tourism strategy on a positive footing. It was also the first time Mexico had a presence at the fair without the CPTM tourism board. Indeed, in the past, the CPTM’s Mexico exhibits had garnered a reputation for turning heads. Their colourful, lively exhibitions won numerous awards over the years, presenting a positive face for Mexico.
So was Mexico’s performance this year?
“Pathetic,” according to fair-goers who witnessed this year’s hastily-managed display. And in all fairness to whoever was in charge of that abomination, Mexico’s 2019 IBT effort didn’t stand much of a chance. Without a centralised board to coordinate and plan Mexico’s tourism campaign, the government has devolved its international efforts to basically the worst possible place: embassies. The basic idea is that each embassy is now in charge of promoting Mexico to their respective host country. The problem is that there’s a massive difference between diplomacy and marketing. Without serious support and retraining, there’s no reason to believe embassy functionaries will have the resources and skills to actually pull off a credible tourism campaign – unless they have the support of a centralised agency back home dedicated to tourism (like, for example, a tourism board). Without such an organisation, getting diplomats to do tourism marketing in their free time makes about as much sense as ordering soldiers to perform policing duties.
Of course, odds are embassies won’t be the ones picking up the slack in reality. In part, state governments are now being expected to pitch in more, though realistically it’s going to be private enterprise that fills the vacuum. Already, industry insiders are discussing how they plan to fill the CPTM’s footprint. The biggest name to throw their hat in the ring is Apple Leisure Group, a Pennsylvania-based resort and package travel giant. Apple Leisure is already the backer of the non-profit YesToMexico, which puts out content that’s pretty much identical to what you’d expect from a tourism board. The fact that private actors are doing the government’s job for AMLO might be good news for anxious tourist industry workers in Mexico, but it hardly seems in keeping with the president’s recent declaration of an end to Mexico’s neoliberal “nightmare”.
“During the entire neoliberal period … there was no talk of planning for development. They were guided by … recipes sent from abroad,” AMLO recently stated.
Now, presumably due to poor planning for development, AMLO’s own tourism campaign will basically be guided by private, largely US corporate interests.
Finally, as the icing on the cake, you might be wondering what AMLO’s government will do with the money it saved by killing the CPTM. According to Tourism Secretary Miguel Torruco Marques, the savings will be used to fund the afore-mentioned Tren Maya. Despite being presented to the Mexican electorate as basically a public works, the line will be 90 percent funded by private investment, and the majority of work will be performed by private contractors. So contrary to AMLO’s claims that this project will be a public works supported by private investment, each day it looks more and more like yet another private mega-project supported by public funds – such as those scraped together by raiding the CPTM.
Symptomatic of (much) deeper problems
Saddening as they may be, none of the issues above are anywhere near as worrisome as the real issue at hand here. Nobody who knows anything about the travel industry thinks dumping Mexico’s tourism board is anything near rational. Industry insiders at Skift described the decision as “mystifying”, and the only people welcoming the decision are Mexico’s direct competitors in the Caribbean.
“If they want to cut their budget off, then we welcome that,” the Caribbean Tourism Organisation’s Secretary General Hugh Riley told Skift.
“I mean, if any competitor of the Caribbean wants to shut down its tourist offices, then we welcome that,” he added, after which he presumably chuckled to himself while lighting up a cigar with a hundred dollar bill.
Indeed, the government’s decision has the potential to cost Mexico billions of dollars in lost tourism revenue. Of course, we have no idea how disastrous this decision will prove to be, because the AMLO administration didn’t bother to commission a cost/benefit analysis of any kind before making the decision. Overall, this whole saga reeks of decisions made by somebody with no understanding of the tourism industry. I’m at a loss to explain how such a thing could happen, though the reactionaries Reuters might have been on to something when they suggested AMLO’s government is a “one man show”. Since winning last year’s elections, AMLO has been dogged by accusations – largely from the right-wing and business advocates – that while he likes to make big decisions, he isn’t so fond of listening to his cabinet and expert advice.
“There is no cabinet,” one government insider reportedly told the Financial Times, arguing AMLO simply isn’t interested in the opinions of even his closest allies.
It’s never easy separating truth from political spin, but one thing is clear: whoever made the decision to scrap the tourism board did not have the expertise or qualifications to make such a move. Officially, the decision came from the Secretariat of Tourism, though given AMLO’s style of governance, it’s hard to say if the buck stopped with Torruco or the president himself. Either way, it’s a bad sign after three months of erratic government decisions, such as green-lighting a gas pipeline past an active volcano (what could go wrong?), while abruptly cancelling a new Mexico City airport without presenting a sensible alternative. Again, it’s not necessarily the decisions that are wrong, but the process (or lack thereof) through which they were reached. A patchwork of opaque executive decisions and spurious last-minute referendums cannot deliver positive results unless both the president and electorate are well-informed about the decisions they are making. On the other hand, it might sound boring, but sober, expert assessments of the costs and benefits, risks and rewards are desperately needed before anything gets put to a referendum or passes the president’s desk. Otherwise, AMLO’s Mexico might one day wake up to discover we’ve all been sleepwalking deeper into the neoliberal nightmare.