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Mexico tourism braces for swine flu slowdown

European travel warnings and canceled trips likely to hit Mexico's $13 billion a year industry.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 28, 2009

Mexico City

Europeans today were told to avoid travel to Mexico unless essential. The biggest tour operators in Germany and Japan canceled all trips to Mexico.

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Asian countries with memories of the 2003 SARS scare banned Mexican pork imports. And several US and Mexican airlines have waived fees for passengers wanting to change their travel dates – as concerns of a swine flu pandemic, with its epicenter in Mexico, grow.

Already reeling from the global economic crisis, Mexico's tourism industry in particular, is bracing for a further blow.

This past year, tourism industry brought in $13 billion, making it the third largest source of foreign currency after remittances and oil revenues.

While the severity and scope of the swine flu outbreak is still unclear, if past health scares are any indication, its recovery could take time.

"Tourism is one of the first things impacted; it is a fragile industry, because people get scared," says Hailin Qu, director of the Center for Hospitality and Tourism Research at Oklahoma State University. He says that tourism industries in Asian nations impacted by SARS took between one and two years to rebound.

"It depends on how many cases there are," says Mr. Qu, who says he received an e-mail this morning from colleagues from China who are canceling their trip to the US amid the scare.

Investors were concerned enough to drive the Mexican peso down three percent Monday.

Fewer tourists are only part of the economic picture. Mexico's economy shrank by 1.6 percent in the fourth quarter of last year. In addition to the peso decline, the stock market also fell Monday by 3.5 percent.

Blue-mask tourism

Arriving in Mexico City does, indeed, seem an intimidating prospect these days. Upon arrival, all airport employees and officials are donning surgical masks. Most arrivals – some of whom quickly put on masks they brought from abroad – say they are aware of the risks, but not scared enough to avoid travel.

But once here, tourist choices in Mexico City, at least, are limited. Museums, public events, and dance clubs have closed their doors. The mayor of Acapulco told the Associated Press that he had ordered bars and night clubs closed in the Pacific resort city.

Mexico City restaurants have not been ordered to close, says Silvia Guzman, the general director of the Mexican Association of Restaurants in Mexico City. "They are following all of the recommendations, including wearing masks to cover their mouths," she says.

But many eateries were empty Monday, and some have closed temporarily. Many residents here have stocked up on food and are staying home.

"There is concern in our association about the impact," says Ms. Guzman, whose members include 250 restaurants across the capital.

The association is currently compiling data to find out how many restaurants have temporarily shut down and what their losses have been thus far.