Sharp drop in post-quake tourism comes at a bad time for Mexico

Maureen McDermitt dreamed of spending her honeymoon next month by an azure Acapulco sea. The Mexican earthquake changed her mind. ``After the first quake I didn't think much about it. But after the second major quake I started to get a little nervous,'' says the Andover, Mass., resident. On Monday, she went to a travel agency to look for a Caribbean cruise.

Mexican officials are deeply concerned by this kind of aftershock -- the loss of American tourists.

After oil, tourism is the second largest industry in Mexico. Eighty-five percent of tourists to Mexico are from the United States. One-fifth of all trips by US citizens abroad are to Mexico. US tourists are a critical source of cash for this financially strapped nation. Already, travel agents report some cancellations.

``It's affecting not just people going to Mexico but Pacific cruise ships stopping over there,'' says Betty Couilliard of Sutton Travel Service in Lawrence, Mass.

It was no coincidence that Mexico's minister of tourism, Antonio Enriquez Savignac, flew to New York early this week to give an official report.

Mr. Enriquez Savignac confirmed that spot checks show hotel reservations off 50 percent in Mexico City and 10-to-15 percent at other tourist areas. But he emphasized that although the human loss was great, major damage to buildings was within a small area of Mexico City.

Several news media, including the Monitor, incorrectly reported the number of square miles of Mexico City seriously damaged by the quakes. The mistake occurred when Mr. Enr'iquez Savignac told reporters the wrong number. He meant to say 18 square miles, less than 2 percent of the city was affected.

``The tourist areas are operating normally,'' said Mr. Enriquez Savignac in an interview. ``Acapulco, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta are open and undamaged.'' He admitted there was ``superficial damage'' to five hotels in Ixtapa. (Club Med, which has a resort in Ixtapa, reports that it was not damaged by the earthquake.) And resorts on the Caribbean side of the country were virtually untouched.

``My task is to put this into proper proportion,'' Mr. Enriquez Savignac said. ``Most of the country is operating normally. The airlines, taxis, buses, subway are all operating normally. If this comes across, people will realize they can continue with their plans to visit Mexico, including most of Mexico City.''

From a financial standpoint, the earthquake hit at a critical period. The price of oil -- which brings Mexico $15-$17 billion annually -- has begun to weaken on world markets. Mexican exports of manufactured goods have also fallen off this year, reports Javier Murcio, senior Latin American economist at Data Resources Inc., (DRI) an economic consulting firm. Thus, any drop in tourism could exacerbate Mexico's $96-billion debt problem.

As it is, Mexico is struggling to pay the $11 billion annual interest payment on its foreign debt. ``Mexico cannot spare any tourist dollars now,'' says the DRI economist.

Tourism brought in $1.9 billion in crucial foreign currency last year, according to the Bank of Mexico. But this year, tourism had already been lagging, due partly to the murder of an American drug enforcement agent in February. In an effort to pressure the Mexican government to crack down on drug trafficking, the US State Department last winter and again this spring threatened to issue a travel advisory warning Mexico-bound tourists.

``That bad publicity brought down their first-quarter numbers,'' says Mr. Murcio. The number of tourists dropped 8 percent in the first four months of 1985 compared with that period a year ago.

Prime tourist season for Mexico comes in the first months of the year, the winter months in the US.

Winter travel plans are usually made now, say US travel agents. ``We're heading into the busy season,'' affirms Miss Couilliard at Sutton Travel. ``This [earthquake] could be extremely damaging to Mexican tourism.''

Mr. Murcio at DRI agrees, but he cautions, ``It's probably too early to assess the impact. Obviously, now there's a lot of nervous panic. Whenever there is a disaster of this kind, people react this way in the short term. Whether this will peak soon, I don't know. But there will probably be a campaign to bring tourists in.''

Travel agents say Mexico remains one of the least expensive foreign countries for Americans to visit.

As for the concerns of honeymooner Maureen McDermitt and others: ``I can't give you a number, but there is an increased probability of another earthquake right after an earthquake,'' says Leonardo Seeber, a seismologist at Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory in New York.

``The likelihood of another earthquake in the same fault zone is not very high. But when you have a large deformation of an area, it tends to stress surrounding areas.''

In any case, Mexican tourism is facing a short -- and possibly long-term -- setback. The cost of building new homes and offices and repairing damaged ones probably will siphon funds away from tourism development projects.

Such projects are aimed at turning isolated, impoverished areas into flourishing resort communities. Cancun is a prime example. ``Cancun is the single most popular resort from Chicago,'' says Walter Sturm of Lindstrom Travel of Rockford, Ill.

At this writing, Mr. Sturm had received no cancellations of upcoming trips to the Caribbean coastal resort. There is no way of calculating how many planned Mexican trips are simply being switched to other locations before any commitments are made.

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