Swine Flu Devastates Mexico's Tourism Industry

Mexico's beaches are normally swarming with tourists, but fears about swine flu and drug-related violence are creating a dramatic drop in tourism.
By Joshua Partlow and William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 30, 2009

CANCUN, Mexico, April 29 -- The airports are empty. The beach you could have to yourself. The hotel staffs are washing their hands every half-hour when they're not sanitizing the doorknobs.

This might be the best time to come to Mexico, if it wasn't one of the worst. Vacant hotel rooms, deserted beaches, canceled flights: This is Mexican tourism in the age of swine flu. And aside from the clear blue water at this resort paradise, it is not pretty.

"Terrible. Terrible. We're running 20 percent occupancy when we should be having 90 percent," said Mónica Roberts, director of corporate operations for the Mexican-owned hotel chain Real Resorts.

Tourism is Mexico's biggest moneymaker after oil and remittances from abroad, but the fear of swine flu has hammered the sector, making it one of the first economic casualties. Business associations in Mexico estimate the country has lost more than $1 billion in revenue since the outbreak began.

"This week has been an enormous economic blow," said Gonzalo Brockmann, president of the Mexico City Tourism Council.

Piece by piece, Mexico is shutting down as it struggles to contain a virus that, so far, has not exploded with large numbers of deaths or infections. As of Wednesday night, there were 99 cases of swine flu in Mexico, with eight patients dying of the disease. There are another 159 probable swine flu deaths, and 1,300 people are hospitalized.

In greater Mexico City, home to 20 million people, the government announced Wednesday night that all nonessential government offices will be closed from Friday until Tuesday, which is a long holiday weekend in Mexico. Health Secretary Jose Cordova also called on all nonessential private business to close their doors -- though he said that transport, supermarkets, trash collection, hospitals and pharmacies should remain open.

In an unusual late night television address, President Felipe Calderón reassured the nation that Mexico would get through this health crisis, and he specifically promised that the government has a million doses of antiviral medicine stockpiled. Calderón also asked Mexicans to spend the coming long weekend "at home with your families."

On Tuesday, the government essentially closed all restaurants, forbidding customers from sitting down to a meal and allowing only food sold to-go.

This follows the earlier closures of all schools, gyms, bars, theaters, museums, pools, cinemas, stadiums and archeological sights. May Day parades have been canceled. Churches and grocery stores remain open, and the buses and subways continue to operate.

In Mexico City, business income lost to the closures is estimated at $60 million a day -- about a third of all local economic activity, said Arturo Mendicuti, president of the Mexico City Chamber of Commerce.

"I don't know which is worse, the influenza or the government," said Enrique Valdez, a cook at a restaurant near the National Institute of Respiratory Illness in Mexico City, where reporters peered through the window to count the people in the waiting room. Valdez was wearing a mask and sitting on a stool out front. "The people are hurting."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company