Swine Flu Outbreak Deals Latest Blow to Mexican Tourist Industry

El Niño, Earthquakes, Droughts, Floods, Hurricanes, Cholera, and Swine Flu—Latin America Occupies a Dangerous Neighborhood

The recent outbreak of swine flu in Mexico has prompted governments worldwide to advise their citizens against travelling to countries such as Mexico that have been afflicted by the disease. At the present time, 152 people, all of them having been infected in Mexico, are confirmed to have died in the past two weeks as a result of contracting the virus. Cases have been reported as far afield as New Zealand, Israel and Scotland; those falling ill abroad all recently had visited, or had contact with those who had been in Mexico, a fact which is bound to deal a further blow to the country’s already deeply ailing tourism industry, as well as throughout the rest of the Caribbean basin. That popular tourist destinations like Oaxaca, Mexico City and Baja California are among the 17 Mexican states having reported deaths, is only likely to exacerbate a fear of travel to Mexico. Such apprehensions already are profoundly affecting favored tourist hotspots elsewhere in the region.

Mexico’s tourist industry has already suffered from the increase in drug-related violence following the election of President Felipe Calderón in 2006. In March of this year, U.S. colleges began to advise their students not to visit the country, traditionally a popular destination for youthful spring break travelers. Tourist numbers also have declined in the face of spikes in common crime throughout the hemisphere and the economic downturn which is negatively affecting virtually the entire area. Consequently, this phenomenon is encouraging foreigners to vacation closer to home rather than travel to traditional Caribbean vacation spots. Those trends can be expected to accelerate if the volume of those affected by swine flu continues to climb. All told, the cost to the region’s tourist industry could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The flu virus, which to date has been treated exclusively as a medical issue, cannot be viewed solely from such a standpoint. Rather, any approach aimed at finding a solution must take into account the social implications of the crisis, and how it may adversely affect the all-important tourist industry throughout Latin America. Not only can the infection pose a serious medical emergency to the rest of the hemisphere, but a series of travel advisories issued against the rest of the Caribbean, together with Cuba, could cause irreparable damage to the enormous revenue generated by the tourist industry. But with the entire region already being battered by the current economic recession and a drastic loss of jobs, the prospect of tourists being frightened off from visiting Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico, along with the English-speaking Caribbean, is a real threat to the region’s overall prosperity.

Some of the areas most affected have proven unable to readily diversify their economic strategies and reduce their dependence on tourism. The international community must plan for short-term and long-term strategies for the purpose of funding facilities to rush aid packages to stricken countries. These could be patterned after low interest loans and supplemented by outright grants to affected areas in the U.S. As for the immediate problem at hand, when it comes to Mexico, Washington must work with the Calderón administration to introduce a facility that will come up with microfinance loans, investment, and relief funds to help these disease-prone areas to weather the storm. If left alone without such intervention, the hemisphere’s social dislocation may develop such a head of team, that it could trigger fatal levels of popular unrest as well as societal disorder.