Mexico tourism collapses as foreigners flee
Mexico City — Foreigners rushed to leave Mexico day last week fearing more flight cancellations as the swine flu epidemic infected the country’s tourist industry, and the WHO warned of an "imminent" pandemic.
Many feared the World Health Organization raising its flu alert could cut departure options as countries tried to contain a virus that has left likely 159 people dead in Mexico.
The lack of tourists was felt most sharply in the capital, the heart of the epidemic, with eateries, museums and the nearby Aztec pyramids ordered closed.
As tour operators cancelled packages to Mexico and countries worldwide issued travel warnings, many tourists headed to the airport.
"We arrived from Peru last night. We were going to spend 10 days in Mexico but now we’re going to miss it all. We’re leaving as fast as possible," said Frenchwoman Aude Tersac, 36, running to catch a flight with her family to Miami.
Kyra Bornemann, a 20-year-old German woman who had been working as a volunteer near the capital, wanted to stay longer but her parents told her to leave immediately.
"I don’t think I’m as scared as my parents. It’s a little bit confusing because nothing like this has happened to me," Bornemann said as she sat beside a large rucksack in an airport cafe.
Renowned for its fine-sand beaches and pre-Hispanic ruins, Mexico is one of the world’s top tourist destinations, with between 22 and 23 million foreign visitors each year.
But in recent days, the flow of 70,000 tourists usually passing through Mexico’s international airport has dried up, with airport workers reporting some 50 percent less foreigners on incoming flights since Friday.
Dozens of doctors were on stand-by for possible swine flu cases and passengers filled out health questionnaires, while all staff were ordered to wear face masks on Wednesday, said airport spokesman Victor Manuel Mejia.
Many foreigners sought to beat imminent flight suspensions, after seeing Cuba and Argentina suspend flights to and from Mexico late Tuesday.
Maria Ordonez, a 75-year-old Argentine woman, was too late. She arrived at the airport early Wednesday to find her flight had been cancelled.
"I’m fed up, tired," Ordonez said, with tears in her eyes. "We called the embassy several hours ago and they said they’d find hotels for us. I’m not afraid of the virus but I want to go home. I want to go now."
Meanwhile, occupancy rates in many Mexico City hotels sank to around 10 percent on Tuesday, said Arturo Mendicuti, president of the capital’s chamber of commerce.
"It’s one of the worst times the city has seen, maybe the worst," Mendicuti said.
"Since the start of the health crisis, we’re recorded cancellations of reservations of 18 groups, around 2,500 people."
There were around 60 percent hotel cancellations for May, said Juan de Dios Barba, president of the Mexico City branch of the employer’s confederation.
Airport worker Agustin Brena Lemus filled out a crossword in the empty arrivals hall.
"I’m 73 and I cannot remember anything like this in my life," Lemus said.
"They’ve suspended flights and in other countries they’re telling people not to travel to Mexico. Who knows what will happen next?"