Vital flow of tourists to Mexico has taken a serious siesta

Nowadays shopkeepers in what used to be the heart of the capital's tourist district near the main square often leave the doors locked and the lights off, because there are so few tourists browsing. Asked if he had seen many tourists, Bernardo Mehl, who is a jeweler at Moishe Rosenberg's shop, does not hesitate to answer: ``You are the first one I've seen.''

It is bad enough that the price of oil, Mexico's No. 1 export, has had such a drastic tumble, but the Mexican government has suddenly realized that tourism, which is its second-largest source of dollars, is in serious trouble, too.

The government has outlined what amounts to an emergency program to prop up the ailing industry. Hoteliers, restaurateurs, travel agents, and shopkeepers are delighted by the program -- which includes many measures for which they have been lobbying for some time.

``The value of tourism hasn't been realized,'' says Hotel Owners Association president Rafael Su'arez V'azquez. ``We are now down to an emergency plan.''

Aureliano Torres Izabel, manager of the Mar'ia Isabel Sheraton Hotel here in the capital, also believes Mexico has taken tourism for granted and is now paying the price.

In 1985, the number of tourists (normally Americans and Canadians) visiting Mexico declined 17.5 percent, according to figures of the National Bank of Mexico. Tourism Secretary Antonio Enr'iquez Savignac affirms that tourism used to grow 6 to 10 percent a year.

And, of course, the amount of tourist dollars spent has fallen or stayed about level at a time when Mexico desperately needs non-oil earnings to rise. Last year Mexico took in some $1.7 billion, which doesn't say much, compared with the 1980 bottom line of $1.6 billion.

The tourism statistics show that the decline in vacationers did not start with last autumn's earthquakes but has been stagnant or dropping since about 1980, businessmen in the industry note.

Why has tourism plummeted? The reasons -- some glaring -- are many:

A retired American couple, for example, is blatantly asked for a bribe when passing through immigration; the official keeps a tight hold on their passports until they stuff dollar bills into his outstretched hand.

At the peak of the season, tourists from several snowy Eastern American cities find their supposedly direct flight is delayed many hours and eventually makes two stops before they arrive in Acapulco with one day of their vacation lost.

The thrifty tourist finds that with cut-rate air fares or a package tour, Europe is cheaper than Mexico, despite Mexico's proximity and the weak peso.

One of the greatest impediments is that thousands of Americans hesitate to drive down to Mexico because they can't easily find unleaded gasoline for their vehicles -- and because border checks can be fraught with frustration and corruption.

That is why Mexico, starting April 16, will be offering discounts of 20 to 40 percent to lure back the detoured traveler. More charters and package tours are to be permitted, and restrictions on air passenger loads are to be eased.

The task of arriving and leaving is to be improved, and the Tourism Ministry promises ``purification of bad elements.''

The government also says it will look at taxes and regulations affecting foreigners who want to buy condominiums in Mexico.

Even Acapulco, formerly the gem of Mexico's tourist attractions, is suffering. Several hotels and restaurants have closed. Tourists complain that services have deteriorated, prices have risen, and the bay, once renowned for spectacular diving, is polluted.

Mayor Alfonso Argud'in concedes that his city is losing its glitter: ``Until recently, Mexico was known above all for Acapulco.''

People here in the capital are also worried, and many doubt that the new government measures will save Mexico City as a tourist spot. Flights arriving in the capital are filled mostly with businessmen, reports Armando Boj'orquez, president of the Mexican Travel Agencies Association.

``It used to be people came first to Mexico City, then went on to Taxco and Acapulco. Now they just go straight to Acapulco.''

Mexico City's size, with 18 million people, its pollution, and its traffic jams had begun turning tourists away. But the earthquakes last year really hurt.

``We have to bring them here by the hand now,'' says Mr. Su'arez.

Mr. Boj'orquez says Mexico City will have to work hard to bring tourists back by having a convention center and charter flights. Su'arez says better inner-city transport has to be arranged so tourists can go from one site to another more easily.

A convention center would create a natural audience, and ``Americans love conventions, so it's absurd not to exploit this,'' Su'arez maintains.

He is also one of many in the industry who want casinos opened here and around the country.

Mr. Savignac, however, rules out both.

With a sigh, Boj'orquez, the travel agents' official, says: ``Not even Mexicans want to come here.''

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