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Flu wallops Mexican tourism

Resorts suffer, residents edgy over outbreak of virus

Wearing protective face masks as a precaution against swine flu contagion, Kevin Solis plays with his mother, Abdi Santoyo, at a nearly deserted beach in Cancun, Mexico, on Thursday.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Wearing protective face masks as a precaution against swine flu contagion, Kevin Solis plays with his mother, Abdi Santoyo, at a nearly deserted beach in Cancun, Mexico, on Thursday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Natalia Parra Associated Press

ACAPULCO, Mexico – Acapulco’s mayor is telling tourists from Mexico City to go home, and residents are stoning their cars. Cancun’s hotels are pleading for visitors to fill their empty rooms. The swine flu outbreak is remaking tourism in strange ways in a country heavily dependent on it.

Tourism to Mexico has plummeted since the swine flu outbreak was declared a week ago, causing the tourism secretary to say Friday that he’s shelving funds earmarked for a publicity campaign until after the epidemic subsides. Rodolfo Elizondo acknowledged it isn’t the best time to promote Mexico as a vacation spot.

Treasury Secretary Agustin Carstens said the flu will be a heavy blow to tourism, Mexico’s third-largest legal source of foreign currency.

Mexico’s resorts, however, are experiencing the crisis in very different ways.

The top destination, Cancun, caters largely to foreigners, who are steering clear of Mexico. The city has lost an estimated $2.4 million in the past week as occupancy dropped 40 percent below usual levels for this time of year, said Rodrigo de la Pena, president of the Cancun Hotel Association.

Businesses are doing everything they can to woo tourists, he said: Restaurants are offering two-for-one dinners and bars two-for-one drinks, while handicraft stores have $1 specials on dolls and necklaces.

“It’s imperative that our hotels have tourists,” Pena said. “We are in a serious economic crisis.”

Occupancy is down similar levels in Acapulco, but the city seems to want it that way for now.

Acapulco caters more to visitors from Mexico City, a five-hour drive away, but residents are afraid the tourists are bringing swine flu from the capital, where most cases have occurred.

“Someone who has flu symptoms shouldn’t think they can come to Acapulco for the weather and get better – that some fresh air and tequila and discos are going to make them forget about everything,” Mayor Manuel Anorve said. “So we ask them to be responsible and not come.”

Acapulco officials are putting out the word that bars, restaurants and tour boats are closed, and that the only things open for business are hotels.

Some residents were going further to drive home the message: Federal highway police said at least four vehicles with Mexico City license plates have been stoned as they entered Acapulco.

Those who do make it to Acapulco are getting a chilly reception – though there’s already a bias against residents of the capital, considered loud and pushy by many in Mexico’s interior.

Visitor Martha Rubio said employees at a beach restaurant laughed at her when she walked by on the beach in a bikini and a surgical mask.

“I don’t let it affect me,” she said, watching her children, 12 and 16, build sand castles.

Gas station attendant Miriam Arizmendi said many of her fellow workers were refusing to fill the tanks of Mexico City cars. She wasn’t joining them, but said she understood.

“They can infect us,” she said, wearing a mask and rubber gloves. “They shouldn’t come. The Mexico City government should declare a quarantine so they don’t leave.”

Mexico has said it will take an intense publicity campaign to win back tourists. Elizondo said he’ll send officials to China and Canada to learn how those countries revived their industries after being slammed by bird flu six years ago.

But for now, U.S., Canadian, Japanese and European tour operators are canceling trips, and cruise ships are changing routes to avoid Mexico. Continental Airlines Inc. said Friday it will halve flights to Mexico because planes are taking off empty.

That’s no wonder as T-shirts hit the market with a new spin on the tourist cliche: “I went to Mexico and all I got was swine flu.”

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