As if the global economic downturn wasn’t enough, some countries are finding their tourism industries battered by negative portrayals that paint them as being contaminated, unsavory or just plain dangerous. Stories of drug wars, widespread disease, robberies, homicides and hate crimes are rampant in two of the countries that, ironically, rely the heaviest on tourism, both in good economic times and bad.
If you’ve turned on the television at all these past few months, you likely know exactly why Mexico’s tourism industry has suffered greatly. Not only did it have a potentially deadly pandemic on its hands with the H1Ni virus, which is affectionately referred to as the “pig flu,” but it also earned an infamous reputation as being a haven for corruption and drug violence.
With 20 million tourists, Mexico was the seventh biggest tourism destination in the world in 2005, according to the World Tourism Organization. In 2007 it had dropped to tenth place, though it pulled in almost the same number of tourists. Today is a different story. Even before the pig flu outbreak countries like the United States and Great Britain were warning its citizens not to enter into Mexico. The violence surrounding the drug war got so bad that the U.S. State Department issued a warning to all travelers, especially Spring Breakers, in late February that all unnecessary travel to Mexico should be avoided. Most schools supported the government’s warning, and sent out additional notices to their students.
Though many people initially thought that these warnings may be a little overdramatic, the statistics quickly proved otherwise. In Ciudad Juarez, where a good majority of the drug-related violence has occurred, more than 2,000 people have been killed since the beginning of 2008. This statistic included college students on Spring Break, Europeans on holiday, and even American and Mexican citizens and law enforcement officials who were familiar with Mexico’s landscape.
Add to this the swine flu and Mexico’s got the perfect prescription for an all out shunning. Mexican tourism officials estimate that closures resulting from the swine flu have caused an almost 50 percent decline in revenue to local businesses, restaurants and resorts. The World Tourism Organization tried to jump to Mexico’s aid by issuing a number of releases encouraging people to continue with their travel plans. One particular release noted that although “the private sector and the public should take all possible precautionary measures….At this stage, the major challenge is to avoid travel restrictions based on inaccurate information and perception. It is important to highlight the fact that WHO does not recommend any travel restrictions.”
One must also remember that Mexico’s problems cannot be avoided simply by closing off the country to tourists. Though the swine flu originated in Mexico, it has gone home with many tourists, affecting not just those individuals, but anybody who interacts with that individual. Unfortunately for America, its close proximity to Mexico may also affect tourism to a few of our country’s border states. “H1N1 poses a more significant and widespread threat to the [tourism] industry,” said Adam Sacks, managing director of Tourism Economics, “It will affect the Southwest as a function of its proximity to the influenza epicenter.”
Naturally, the border that America shares with Mexico also opens this country up to the drug violence that has frequently spilled over into border-adjacent towns in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California. Sacks believed that U.S. tourism won’t be quite as affected by the portrayal of this cross-border violence, however, as many travelers understand that the two countries have completely different laws and governments. It is these laws, Sacks said, that keep the Mexican drug violence from affecting the American tourism industry. “Tourism to the Southwest will not be quite as affected by the violence in Mexico,” he said. “[This is] due to a clear difference in the rule of law between the border states and Mexico right now.”
While this is good news for the U.S., it only serves to further highlight the disconnect between tourists and Mexico’s once thriving tourism base.
Jamaica is likely one country that can sympathize with Mexico. While pictures of college kids or young professionals smoking some ganja on a secluded beach have often been associated with this country’s lush landscape and laid-back attitude, Jamaica’s drug violence is no joke to tourism officials.
Jamaicans.com, one of Jamaica’s largest tourism Web sites, goes to great lengths to inform its readers on how aggressive local drug dealers can be. “The open flaunting of drugs is a major turnoff to tourists, who often feel threatened,” the Web site stated. “Marijuana can be found virtually everywhere. We’ve seen Rastas smoking spliffs the size of cigars right along the roadside. If you take a tourist bus from Montego Bay to Negril, you’ll see vendors jump from behind a tree with a wad of ganja and a cigarette the size of a small baton as the bus slows down to make a sharp turn.”
Individuals looking for a vacation that is comparable to Mexico, but without the risks of drug violence, will likely turn to other parts of the Caribbean.
Like the drug warning about Mexico, many are quick to dismiss the notion that Jamaica is a dangerous, drug-filled place. Though that notion may not be entirely true, the country does suffer from a long history of drug problems, which have led to robberies, assaults and homicides. These problems become evident when you look at the statistics. According to U.S. Customs, nearly 64 percent of all airport arrests for cocaine possession involve passengers who were arriving from Jamaica. In 2003, the BBC reported that the drug trafficking problem had gotten so bad between the UK and Jamaica that more than half of all foreign women imprisoned in the UK were convicted Jamaican drug mules. This report was issued a year and a half after British diplomats warned aviation and customs officials that one in every ten passengers flying into the UK from Jamaica could be carrying cocaine.
Jamaica’s drug problems have brought about even bigger problems, namely gun smuggling, increased poverty and homicide rates. Jamaica has one of the highest murder rates in the world, despite being a country of only 2.7 million people. And its problems have only been compounded as more and more Jamaicans become desperate due to layoffs in the country’s tourism sector. The Jamaican Labour Ministry cited a job loss of 9,331 jobs in 2008, up 900 percent from the previous year. After losing their jobs and sense of livelihood, some Jamaicans rob unsuspecting tourists or sell drugs in order to make a living. Others begin taking drugs themselves, virtually rendering them unemployable. Not only do these behaviors make a bad situation worse, but the added competition can often encroach on other drug dealers who are willing to kill to defend their selling turf. “This is the vicious cycle of a tourism downturn in a developing county,” Sacks said. “Economic weakness leads to conflict, which hits the tourism economy [creating] more economic weakness.”
Both Jamaica and Mexico are likely to experience a decrease in drug-related offenses and violence once the global economy turns around and tourism dollars – as well as jobs – return. But an economic upturn won’t likely solve these long-existing problems, which begs the question of what will. Once a solution is implemented that not only involves these countries’ law enforcement departments and government, but its ordinary citizens as well, perhaps the investment dollars will follow. An improved infrastructure, public image and economy would no doubt follow.