From Carnival to Surgical Masks – Swine Flu’s Affect on Mexican Tourism

27th April 2009 (Last Updated April 27th, 2009 18:30)

Just as with SARS, the tourism industry could be one of the first to suffer from the swine flu outbreak. Penny Jones looks at how, even in this early stage, Mexico is struggling against a new 'ghost-town' image where surgical masks are a part of everyday life.

From Carnival to Surgical Masks – Swine Flu’s Affect on Mexican Tourism

In just three days, numerous dreams have been destroyed and millions of dollars possibly lost as Mexico grapples with a problem that could be far worse than the drug trade or political unrest has ever been to its tourism industry. And just how long it will take the nation to recover from the ‘swine flu’ virus, derived from pig, bird and human strains of influenza, and from the resulting economic fallout during already tough financial times, is anybody’s guess.

Tourists have become quite accustomed to the risk of violent crime, which in Mexico is mostly drug-related gang violence or the flash political protests that have plagued Mexico City for some time now. What they seem more scared of is the silent killer that comes with a warning the world over in the form of a surgical mask and the flattening effect it is having on this normally vibrant city.

A ghost town

Dining is off the menu, as is dancing at high-energy nightclubs, travelling on busy buses and rail lines and passing the vibrant sound of children at play in schools – Mexico City, over just three to four days, has become a ghost town.

“Mexico City, over just three to four days, has become a ghost town.”

The death of more than 100 people due to the strain of influenza means historical sites are closed, top restaurants, museums and more are shut down. Instead of tourists, the military is busy handing out masks on the streets and ordering ill-looking people to head home. Flying has also become more difficult due to the policing of incoming passengers from any North American destination – all this despite no official travel bans being announced by any nation at the time of writing.

Some may say the threat is very real, while others, especially those in the hospitality industry such as hotel firms, are still waiting to assess just how real it really is. The Intercontinental Hotel Group, for example, says it is way too early for any action to be taken in regards to its hotels and bookings in Mexico, let alone other parts of the world.

Intercontinental spokesperson Emma Corcoran says not enough government guidance has been provided as yet to make the hotel chain change practices – though it is sitting tight to see what tomorrow might bring.

“Mexico is a relatively small part of our global business – we have 106 hotels there, which is 4% of what we own internationally,” Corcoran says. “At this point it is too early for us to see the effect swine flu will have on our business at all.”

Intercontinental Hotels in Mexico are mostly Holiday Inn hotels with a domestic clientele. Word in the US, where two cases of swine flu have been reported in California, is that the population there is scared. Tourism in Mexico dropped by 20% in the last weekend of April according to the Mexico City Hotel Association. And now, with cases reported in Spain, fears exist for the already embattled tourism industry there.

Is the holiday now over?

For Nicole Mauloni, a trip to Mexico this May was going to be just what the doctor ordered – that was until this weekend, when swine flu really reared its head. Heading over for some warmth following a bitter London winter, Mexico was going to be the beach destination for the web designer’s 30th birthday, which she had booked and paid for with two friends.

“We are now worried we won’t be able to see Mexico City as it usually is – people are saying its like a ghost town and the people that are out are walking around with face masks. I think I would rather put it off until this has passed so we can enjoy Mexico properly,” Mauloni says. “We are now looking to go to Cuba or somewhere in the Caribbean.”

The problem is that tourism operators are still unsure how to deal with requests for refunds such as Mauloni’s. The travel agent that provided the booking still doesn’t have any advisories strong enough to enforce a cancellation and refund, and even if one does get issues, holidaymakers are still unsure they will get their money back.

“We can only be assured of our refund on taxes,” Mauloni says.

“Tourism operators are still unsure how to deal with requests for refunds.”

Intercontinental’s Corcoran says they expect such advisories to have different effects, depending on the country they are issued in, and that to date, each request for a cancellation is being monitored on a case-by-case basis.

“We have a few meetings coming up with the World Health Organisation tomorrow, and we are still waiting on guidance from each national as to what they are going to do. Until then we have done all we can do,” she says.

Meanwhile, analysts are predicting hotels will also be hit financially, with stocks dropping in reaction to swine flu. It is the same thing that happened with SARS, and even New York might not be safe. The whole of the US is anxiously waiting, along with tourists hoping to sample its shores, for the next word on the global health crisis that carries as much doubt as it does fever.