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Mexico Eyes Potential of Chinese Tourists

It faces a monumental task in selling itself to an unfamiliar market, observers say.

March 23, 2006|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Can a billion Chinese be wooed?

Like their counterparts around the world, Mexican hoteliers, resort owners and restaurateurs are salivating over the numbers of newly affluent Chinese expected to travel abroad in coming years.

As disposable incomes rise with a fast-expanding economy, Chinese tourists will be spreading billions of dollars across the globe as they venture beyond their once-insular country.

Mexico, which ranks tourism as its second-highest source of foreign revenue, is especially eager to attract visitors from China -- and the currency they would exchange and spend here. The two countries, on opposite sides of the Pacific, already conduct significant trade, though it's largely in one direction. Mexico last year exported half a billion dollars in goods and services to China while importing $14.5 billion worth.

As many as 100 million Chinese will be traveling abroad annually by 2020, three times this year's estimate, according to the World Tourism Organization. For all the big numbers involved, it's a small one that perhaps best illustrates the potential upside for Mexico: Last year, only 1 of every 2,000 visitors came from China.

"We have to figure out a way to place ourselves in this immense market," said Sen. Dulce Maria Sauri Riancho, who sits on her legislative body's Pacific affairs committee.

But the reality is that Mexican tourism officials don't know what Chinese tourists want, said Enrique Dussel Peters, an economics professor and China trade specialist at Mexico City's National Autonomous University.

He cites insufficient market research and advertising as key impediments. Mexico must aggressively court Chinese tour packagers, he said, and not vice versa.

"Chinese know next to nothing about us beyond tequila and mariachis," Dussel said. "They don't know what Palenque and the Yucatan monuments are, and for this you need to spend money on advertising and be present at international tourism conventions, which we are not."

For now, he said, Mexicans must lower their expectations, because Chinese tourists are different from Mexico's biggest customers: American visitors and convention-goers who are drawn in droves to beach areas such as Cancun, the Mayan Riviera, Los Cabos and Ixtapa.

Mexican beach resort cities, which pull in nearly two-thirds of all foreign tourists, are unlikely to top Chinese travelers' lists of preferred sites, said Mexico's tourism undersecretary, Gabriel Szekely.

That's because Chinese can travel shorter distances and spend less to visit beaches in southern China, Vietnam and Thailand and will probably be more interested in Mexico for its cultural and pre-Hispanic attractions, Szekely said.

Mexico faces stiff competition from U.S. destinations such as Las Vegas, whose casinos allow many Chinese to indulge their passion for gambling. In Mexico, casino gambling has been illegal since the 1930s.

Unlike many other foreigners who are happy to gorge themselves on Mexican food and beverages while visiting here, Chinese by and large prefer their native cuisine when away from home, said hotel executive Gordon Viberg, who heads Mexico's tourism industry chamber. His company, the Grupo Presidente chain, is opening Chinese restaurants in several of its Mexican hotels.

At a recent forum co-sponsored by the United Nations and Mexico's foreign ministry, Viberg and other speakers emphasized that Mexico remained ill prepared to play host to large numbers of Asians.

Still, most Mexican tourism officials agree that the Chinese discovery of Mexico is not a case of if but when, and that the potential is enormous. Of the 22 million foreigners who spent at least one night in Mexico last year, only 11,000 were Chinese, Mexico's tourism ministry says. The government has set a goal of attracting 100,000 Chinese tourists annually by 2010 but hopes to exceed that target.

To stimulate Chinese business, Mexico's foreign ministry approved $1.5 million this year to open a tourism promotion office in Beijing.

In January, Mexico put in place expedited visa procedures for Hong Kong residents, enabling them to receive Mexican tourist visas in three days, compared with three to six months previously.

Government officials believe that tourism could be the leading engine of Mexico's economic growth in coming decades, even outpacing oil, manufacturing and the billions of dollars that Mexican immigrants living in the United States send home every year.

But more has to be done, said Szekely, the tourism undersecretary. There are no direct flights from China to Mexico, and Mexican airlines must establish them if Asian tourism is to take off, he said.

More workers in the Mexican tourism industry should learn the language of their visitors, experts say. Hotelier Viberg acknowledged that probably none of his 3,600 employees spoke Chinese.

Mexico sees Asian visitors as a means of attracting foreign currency and helping balance trade with other countries.

In addition to its imbalance with Beijing -- a result of Chinese shoes, clothing, hardware and other goods flooding the market -- Mexico last year ran up a deficit of $10.2 billion with Japan and $5.2 billion with South Korea.

Still, patience might be the greatest virtue for Mexico's tourism industry.

"Time is not money to the Chinese," Viberg said, counseling his counterparts to take the long view. "Their civilization has had 5,000 years of it."

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