Mexico’s tourism left shaken by the flu

May 2nd, 2009 - 11:39 am ICT by IANS  

By Carlos Aguila and Andrea Sosa Cabrios
Cancun/Mexico City, May 2 (DPA) Mexico’s tourist sector is stunned: cancellations are flowing in from all over the world, cruise ships are making detours and some countries are recommending that their citizens not travel to Mexico due to the swine flu epidemic.

Mexico City hotels were down to an occupancy rate of less than 20 percent. City restaurants have been banned from serving food on their premises. And major tourist resorts like Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, in the state of Quintana Roo, were starting to look more like ghost towns than crowded hot spots.

The hotel sector did not rule out mass firings as the full impact of the situation remains to be seen.

“As time goes by, the numbers are changing, so it is not possible to make an accurate evaluation,” said Rafael Armendariz, president of the Mexican Hotel and Motel Association.

Sara Latife Ruiz Chavez, tourism minister of the normally busy Quintana Roo state on the Yucatan’s east coast, said flights had been cancelled from Europe, Asia, Latin America, the US and Canada. Cruise ships had cancelled their stops in the ports of Cozumel and Mahahual, she added.

“Once the epidemiological crisis is over, Quintana Roo will voraciously go out to reconquer those markets,” Latife Ruiz Chavez vowed.

The Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) said that given the health-protecting measures undertaken by Mexico and given the recommendations of international health organisations, its ships were being diverted to destinations like the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Aruba.

Due to its focus on tourism, the state of Quintana Roo would be worst-hit financially by the crisis, after Mexico City, said Quintana Roo Governor Felix Arturo Gonzalez Canto.

He put in place an initial fund of about $1 million to support the state’s most productive sector. The resources were to be funnelled through the state’s labour ministry, “particularly to temporary employment”.

“With such a budget we will immediately support 7,500 workers in the field of tourism,” Gonzalez Canto said.

Reports of flu in the eastern Yucatan were on the rise, the governor said.

“Two cases tested positive in Chetumal, but they suffered from seasonal influenza. There are 14 cases that are being studied in Cancun, Solidaridad and other municipalities, but we have to wait for the results,” he said of infections in the state.

According to Airports of Southeastern Mexico, planes arriving in Cancun from abroad did so “half-full or less”. Tourists who were already in Mexico’s beaches, however, were not leaving earlier than they had planned.

Rodrigo de la Pena Segura, president of the Cancun Hotel Association, said hotel operators were worried about the cancellations and had to change their strategy from planned 10 percent increases in costs for visitors.

Julian Balbuena Alonso, general manager of the tour operator Best Day Travel - among those that take the largest number of people to Cancun, Riviera Maya and Quintana Roo in general - said 15 percent of all reservations had been cancelled within this week, due to the flu epidemic.

All hope was on domestic tourism ahead of the long Labour Day weekend May 1-5.

“There were people who were looking to get out of cities in the centre of the country,” Balbuena Alonso explained.

However, Mexican President Felipe Calderon poked a hole in that hopeful balloon late Wednesday when he urged Mexicans to remain at home during the holiday, to hinder the spread of the virus.

According to Balbuena Alonso, some 85 percent of the people who were planning holidays in the area are waiting “to see what happens”.

“We suggest that they have a little patience or that they re-programme their stays,” he explained.

Hotels in Cancun want to see a health-safety cordon around the city to minimise the epidemic’s impact on tourism.

“The move contemplates cleaning hotels, bus stations, the car transport system and the airport with strong chlorine solutions,” said representative Fernando Garcia Zalvidea.

The point is to show that “Cancun is adopting hygiene measures so that people have confidence”, he added.

Raul Marrufo Gonzalez, head of Cozumel’s Tourist Promotion Council, said 14 ships - with an average of 2,500 people each - failed to dock there in the past two days. Of this estimated total of 35,000 people, 70 percent would have been expected to leave the ship during their visit.

“These people spend $60-65 on average, which means that in recent days the island failed to cash in on close to $1.6 million,” he said.

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