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Tourists rethink trips to Mexico amid unrest

The tourism industry in Mexico has struggled since last fall, when Hurricane Wilma struck, and has gotten worse recently because of protests and violence at popular beach spots.
Supporters of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador attend a rally in Mexico
Thousands of supporters of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador attend a protest in Mexico City on July 30. No tourists have been hurt during the rallies over Mexico's disputed presidential election, but hotels are facing thousands of cancellations.Daniel Aguilar / Reuters file
/ Source: The Associated Press

A human head washes up on an Acapulco beach. Protesters hassle visitors at makeshift checkpoints in the colonial city of Oaxaca. And in Mexico City, leftist demonstrators turn the tourist draws of Reforma Avenue and the Zocalo plaza into sprawling, ragtag protest camps.

Growing political unrest and drug violence are making foreigners think twice about visiting Mexico, where the $11.8 billion tourism industry is the country’s third-largest legal source of income, after oil and remittances from migrants in the United States.

Mexico has been struggling since last fall, when Hurricane Wilma hit the country’s biggest tourism moneymaker, Cancun.

No tourists have been reported hurt in Mexico City, Oaxaca or Acapulco, but hotels are being hit by cancellations of thousands of reservations.

$23 million lost each day
In Mexico City alone, hotels, restaurants and stores are losing $23 million a day, according to the city’s Commerce, Services and Tourism Chamber. Some businesses have threatened to stop paying taxes unless the government cracks down on the demonstrations.

Protesters in Oaxaca, claiming fraud in the state gubernatorial race, have taken over the picturesque downtown to pressure Gov. Ulises Ruiz to step down. They forced the cancellation of an ethnic festival, and tourists must pass through checkpoints to reach the arch-ringed main plaza.

Protesters want to use the unrest to “force the population that relies on tourism to pressure the government,” said Jose Escobar, head of the Oaxaca employers’ federation.

In the Pacific resort of Acapulco, drug gangs are battling for control of lucrative smuggling and sales routes. Human heads have been dumped in front of government offices and in the glittering resort’s bay. There have been gun battles on the streets.

In Mexico City, supporters of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador have taken over streets to press election officials for a re-count in the disputed July 2 presidential elections.

Forced to rough it
And tourism officials say things could get worse.

“If this goes on for a week or 10 days more, some hotels are going to be in a desperate situation,” said Carlos Mackinlay, director of Mexico City tourism promotion.

Double-decker buses no longer tour the tree-lined Reforma, which connects the city’s Chapultepec Park to the historic center but is now closed to traffic. Museums, restaurants and hotels stand largely empty.

Tourists who brave the demonstrations must skirt rickety gas cookers and duck under ropes holding up tarps as they hike back to their hotels. Mayor Alejandro Encinas said Thursday that city officials would guarantee access to hotels.

For now, helmetless motorcycle “taxi” drivers offer white-knuckle, 15-peso ($1.35) rides on the backs of their bikes, navigating past lawn chairs, cots and tents.

Korean businesswoman Sophia Noh, 28, paced outside the blockaded stock exchange building Thursday, wondering how she was going to get in for a meeting.

“This has made things harder,” Noh said. “I think both sides should begin to negotiate.”

Too scared to sightsee
Across the street, 60-year-old tourist Elvira Gotuzzo of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was trying to rent a car to get out of town. She and her family were too scared to sightsee in the city’s 7-century-old downtown, which is occupied by demonstrators in ragged tents.

“This is a crime,” Gotuzzo said. “It’s such a shame!”

Despite growing calls from President Vicente Fox and even Lopez Obrador’s own supporters, city officials who are allied with the leftist candidate have refused to take action.

In Mexico City’s financial and cultural heart, loudspeakers blare salsa music and harangues about alleged vote fraud.

The protesters claim the presidential election was tainted by fraud, giving conservative Felipe Calderon a narrow lead. The case is before an electoral tribunal, which has until Sept. 6 to declare a president-elect or annul the election.

Things aren’t likely to improve soon.

“This is only the first step,” said protester Fernando Martinez, helping block a downtown office building. “Next, we’re going after the airports.”