OAXACA, Mexico — This colonial Mexican city recently received a special guest. Malia Obama, the US president’s 13-year-old daughter, walked through the city’s elegant, ornate churches on a school field trip with 12 classmates and two dozen security guards.
Their itinerary, at the end of last month, included visits to the massive Monte Alban archeological site and the “world’s biggest tree” El Tule.
The visit caused a stir. In Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HAH-ka), everybody seemed aware of Malia’s trip — particularly the region’s tourism boosters. The head of the hoteliers association attributed a recent spike in occupancy specifically to Malia. One Oaxaca promoter even joked the city should start its own “Malia was here” campaign.
The field trip gave Oaxaca what Mexico’s tourism industry craves so much right now: positive press.
The bulk of Mexico’s vital tourism economy comes from US travelers. The country’s drug war has damaged its reputation with its most frequent visitors. As a result, Mexico is trying to change perception by any means necessary.
“We believe that we have to rebrand to the Americans,” said Niza Lopez, head of Oaxaca’s international promotion. “Yes, there are unsafe areas in Mexico, but also there are areas like the state of Oaxaca where really there’s almost no violence or crime.”
Tourism campaigns in the past year exhibit this effort. The most effective one, according to the Mexican Tourism Board, has been the Mexico Taxi Project. US tourists returning from Mexico vacations were taped on a hidden camera in a taxi. They responded positively to pointed questions about safety and whether they enjoyed the trip. The tourists were then told about the cameras and were asked permission for the footage to be used for promoting Mexico. The videos were diffused through the board’s Facebook page and other social media.
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The ad offensive, part of a $30 million marketing blitz to the US and Canada in 2011, received such positive feedback that the tourism board debuted a new project named “Faces of Mexico” this spring. It featured candid videos of US expats talking about why they love living in Mexico.
“A lot of the tourists who come to Mexico are pretty angry that Mexico is getting a bad rap,” said Gerardo Llanes, the board’s chief marketing officer. “They say, ‘Look we’ve been there. We’ve had a good time. Let me try to help.’”
Other initiatives emphasize the Mexican Tourism Board’s slogan “The place you thought you knew,” to inform potential visitors that there’s much more to Mexico than the beach.
The board touts themed trips such as tequila tours, gastronomy circuits and “Mundo Maya” excursions. The latter offers trips to Mayan sites in southeastern Mexico. It runs through Dec. 21, the day the Mayan calendar ends, and plays up the alleged date of the apocalypse. The end of the world notwithstanding, famous Mayan ruins like Chichen Itza have seen little violence from the drug war.
The campaigns could be working. In 2009 and 2010, sinking arrivals weighed on the Mexican economy, Latin America’s second largest after Brazil. Drug-related violence, swine flu and the worldwide financial crisis were considered the big culprits. But officials claim tourism is recovering, citing a record 22.7 million visitors in 2011.
Brazilians, Russians and Chinese registered the largest increases, assisted by the easing of visa requirements and aggressive tourism campaigns in those countries.
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Air travel from the United States, however, fell 3 percent. The tourism board’s marketing chief Llanes indicated that US citizens have traveled less overall since the financial crisis. Still, Americans account for 60 percent of tourism in Mexico.
For tourists who arrive by sea, Mexico is working to “calm concerns” among cruise lines about the country’s ports, Llanes said. Popular port of call Puerto Vallarta made headlines in February when a gunman robbed tourists on a bus trip during a cruise excursion.
Mexican officials have asked the US government to offer more specific and accurate warnings about Mexico, to prove that violence is not consuming the entire country. The US State Department went along: In mid-February, it updated its Mexico travel warnings to show more precise detail.
Nonetheless, the warning includes some intimidating statistics: Some 47,515 people were killed in drug-related violence in Mexico between Dec. 1, 2006, and Sept. 30, 2011; the number of US citizens murdered in Mexico vaulted from 35 in 2007 to 120 last year.
Much of the cartel violence has struck distant from many tourist destinations, and the new text reflects this. Hotspots such as Cancun, Cozumel, Riviera Maya and Cabo San Lucas have no warnings at all. States with warnings include details about the nature of the violence and whether the popular tourist destinations in them are considered safe.
Some historic travel hubs have seen foreign tourism plunge. Take the iconic beach town of Acapulco, in Guerrero, a state ravaged by drug cartel-related murders. Last year, after gangland violence, Reuters news agency ran the headline “In Acapulco, it’s mayhem by the beach.”
Gang violence had forced some bars, restaurants and hotels to close. But without the stream of extortion from those businesses that sustained them, the gangs were turning to kidnapping and extorting anyone with a job, Reuters reported.
The tourism board hopes to help turn Acapulco back around. It launched the website “Remember Acapulco," posting nostalgic images of speedo-clad cliff divers and sunny golf courses to spark memories among would-be vacationers of the area’s greatness.
Some Americans aren’t buying it. Rick Santorum, the former Republican presidential candidate, joined a chorus of critics calling the president’s decision to allow his daughter to visit Mexico “irresponsible.”
But the US travel warnings site states “no advisory is in effect” for Oaxaca.
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(The White House had asked media to scrub stories about Malia’s visit due to an age-old policy barring media from covering the president’s children when they are unaccompanied by their parents. But after an earthquake struck Mexico, officials felt obliged to comment, announcing that Malia, Obama’s eldest daughter, was safe.)
Across the border from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas — which does bear the shame of a high advisory warning — lies the American town of Harlingen, Texas. Jo Liston runs a travel agency in Harlingen called Go…with Jo! None of her travelers has been a victim of violence in Mexico, she said, but that hasn’t mattered much. Her business to Mexico, which was once booming, has all but vanished.
Liston recently visited Puerto Vallarta, where an annual tourism fair was taking place — the fair had relocated to the port city after a quarter-century of Acapulco serving as the host. Llanes, the tourism board marketer, said American buyers at the fair had increased by 50 percent from 2011.
While there, Liston said, she sensed a feeling of optimism about the Mexico travel industry for the first time in years.
She wondered if that sentiment soon would be reaching Americans back home.
“It’s too bad because it really is a beautiful country. I’ve never had any problems,” Liston said.
“But that’s not what they’re reading, or what they’re seeing.”