Saturday, June 19, 2010

chalking up the cheesy news

There they were.

Side by side.

Two headlines as incongruous as chalk and cheese.  Or flan and salsa.

"Mexico pushes to improve its violent image"

and --

"Mexico to limit use of US dollars"

The first headline put my teeth on edge.  American newspapers love to put the words "Mexico" and "violent" together.  It is an ongoing theme.  In many of my friends' eyes, Mexico can be reduced to two themes: illegal immigration and drug deaths.

And, despite the silly wording of the headline (I really doubt Mexico is interested in burnishing its reputation for violence), the news story was about President Calderón's recent announcement that Mexico has hired a public relations firm to convince tourists and foreign investors that Mexico is not an inherently violent place.

You would think the task would be easy.  There is less violence in Mexico, as a whole, than there is in most other countries.  And, just like every country, some areas are more violent than others.

The big problem is years' worth of stories that have given just the opposite impression -- that anyone in Mexico is likely to be stuiffed in the trunk of a car, held for ransom, and then beheaded in some Tarentino-inspired basement.

The Mexico Tourism Board has produced some promotional pieces that could play art house theaters.  The most praised was its
2009 production with images of color and light backed by the hip-waggling rhythms of Arturo Márquez's Danzon No. 2.  Cool stuff.

The problem was obvious from the start.  Travel posters come to life will not attract tourists and investors if the target audience believes the final act was written by Dostoevsky.

And it did not work.  Tourism has decreased by 25% -- 40% -- 53%.  Take your pick.  The numbers are all over the place.  The problem is -- the tourists aren't.

Thus, the new public relations campaign.

If pretty images do not work, tough love might.  The proposed messages are clear:
  • Most of Mexico is safe
  • Problems exist
  • They will be discussed in the open
  • The government is working hard to make the country safe for foreign investment and tourists

President Calderón could never be confused with a dewy-eyed optimist.  But there is a certain desperate tone in this campaign.  Rather like Jimmy Carter's 1980 campaign.  And we all know how that worked.

At least, Mexico realizes its image needs a bit of a makeover.

That is why the second headline is so jarring.

"Mexico to limit use of US Dollars?"

Is this the same Mexico that wants to attract tourists and investors?

Well, yes.  As long as the investors are not drug dealers.  At least, that is the intent of the new regulations.

In an attempt to slow down money laundering, individuals going to a Mexican bank will be restricted in the exchanging the number of dollars in their fist for shiny new pesos.  $1,500 per month if he does not have a Mexican bank account.  $4,000 if he does.

The perceived problem is that about $10 billion of drug money flows through Mexican banks each year -- a figure that may be low by a factor of three.

This is another idea that sounds plausible on its face, but will have untended consequences. 

Any time businesses face additional regulations, they look for easier environments for investment. 

The same goes for tourists.  Even though most of them do not spend $1,500 in cash on vacation in a month, it appears to be just another hassle.  Why go to Mexico when you can avoid the bureaucratic hassle by going to some place like the Caymans.

Of course, the headlines are easily reconcilable.  The Mexican government is trying to come up with a consistent policy to defeat the drug lords.  In the process, the rest of the economic may be undermined.

Even with the contradiction, I still love Mexico, and I will urge my adventurous friends to come visit -- and perhaps stay -- when I return in November.

Sometimes, you can have your cheese and eat it, too.


Anonymous said...

When a country starts making it hard for an honest illegal drug dealer to make a profit, you know it's in trouble.


Babs said...

We would be happy if tourism was only off 25% to 55% but it has been off more then 70% in the last two years.
I don't see a problem with the money issue. Almost everyone uses credit cards and ATM cards when traveling so tourists shouldn't be affected.
Those of us who LIVE in Mexico might have a problem but I don't know anyone who gets $4000 out of a bank account in cash in Mexico. Almost all of us use various ATM machines.

NWexican said...

Should keep the riff-raff (Hoi polloi, for those who did not read your post on the 17th) from getting anywhere near the border. There are going to be way too many baby boomers ready to retire and leave the country before I can and I would prefer they go to Venezuela or Argentina or the UK....

Howard said...

Steve: I have not changed US dollars for Pesos in the 20 years or so I have been coming to Mexico. Why would I? I can take any amount I like out of the ATM machines - just need to arrange the limits in advance. Cash is for drug dealers and money launders. The financial controls are long overdue.
As far as tourism is concerned, hotel occupancy in Manzanillo is good, and up from some years. July a new cruise line will start visiting Manzanillo - so things are good. The biggest problems are coping with the growth in population and commercial activity!

Steve Cotton said...

ANM -- Or accidently upsets the natural balance of tourist dollars.

Babs -- My concern is with mixed messages. Tourist money is like water. It seeks the path of least resistance. Even when the resistance is imaginary.

NWexican -- There should be plenty space for all. No need to be pulling up the ladders -- yet.

Howard -- I am amazed at the number of tourists who still travel with dollars. Most of that group have abandoned cards for various reasons.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that many of the drug dealers simply keep their proceeds in dollars. At least most of the photos of busts usually have stacks of U.S. currency prominently featured.

And I'm sure that in a place like Culiacán, if a drug lord asks you to take USD in payment, you simply say, "Si, Señor. Claro!"

I rather doubt any limit on the changing of dollars will have any impact on the drug trade whatsoever.

But tourists? They are an easily frightened bunch.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where we always have a wad of pesos with us so we don't have to take cash out of the airport ATM.

Steve Cotton said...

Kim -- My experience has been that laws and regulations aimed at drug lords usually inconvenience innocent bystanders. Rather like drive-by shootings. Something we lack both in Salem and Melaque.