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Mexico tells tourists: Don't fear the flu

The swine flu outbreak has been a blow to the country's crucial tourism industry, temporarily shuttering hotels and restaurants. An advertising campaign tries to get visitors back to the resorts.

May 13, 2009|Ken Ellingwood

MEXICO CITY — Mexican authorities said Tuesday that several of their country's best-known tourism spots are free of swine flu, as they scrambled to limit damage to the all-important travel industry due to the outbreak.

Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said five top beach areas -- Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos, Mazatlan, Zihuatanejo and Cozumel -- have not registered any confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus.

"Tourist destinations are safe in Mexico," Cordova said. "People can come back with complete peace of mind. It is being monitored very intensively."

Cordova said the latest testing had confirmed 2,282 cases of H1N1 infection in Mexico, with 58 deaths. The most recent confirmed flu fatality was reported late last week.

About half the flu cases have occurred in Mexico City, but the virus has been confirmed in all but two of Mexico's 31 states. In Quintana Roo state, home to the Cancun and Cozumel resorts, federal health officials have tallied 11 cases. At least one was in Cancun, according to state authorities.

The outbreak, confirmed by Mexican officials on April 23, is a blow to an economy already suffering from a drop in exports to the United States because of the recession. Thousands of restaurants and other businesses shut their doors to prevent the spread of infection. Nearly all have reopened.

Officials have expressed deep concern about tourism, the country's third-largest source of legitimate foreign revenue. Many would-be visitors were already wary because of the country's drug violence, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives since 2006.

Mexico's tourism minister, Rodolfo Elizondo, estimated this week that the flu-related decrease in foreign visitors could cost Mexico up to 250,000 jobs and as much as $4 billion this year -- equal to nearly a third of the $13.3 billion earned last year. Mexico drew 22.6 million visitors in 2008, according to government figures.

The flu outbreak left many hotels deserted after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned U.S. travelers against "nonessential" trips to Mexico. The advisory remains in effect, though Mexican officials say the worst of the health crisis is over.

One group of hotels, Secrets and Dreams Resorts & Spas, is offering a "flu-free" guarantee: Guests who catch the H1N1 virus at one of its resorts can get three vacations for free.

The Mexican government plans to ease taxes and boost credits for tourism-related businesses.

Tourism officials plan to spend nearly $100 million on advertising to lure travelers back. The first step is a campaign to persuade Mexicans to travel. Hotels in spots such as Cancun are already offering deep discounts.

Despite the losses to date, Elizondo told reporters Monday that the flu outbreak may be easier to overcome than an earthquake or hurricane.

"Today we face damage to the image of our country, rather than material damage -- damage that is absolutely reversible if we dedicate the resources," he said.

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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