A few years back when Condé Nast Traveler chose San Miguel de Allende as the best city in the world, plenty of Mexicans reacted with a characteristic mix of humility, malinchismo, and mischievous humor. “How much did we have to bribe for that?” became a punchline frequently heard in that exquisite colonial town in the central state of Guanajuato.
And last month, Condé Nast competitor Travel + Leisure magazine doubled down on the proposition that if you go to only one place in the world, it should be Mexico. The travel magazine (which admittedly reads like forbidden porn during a pandemic when many borders remain closed) ranked the world’s top 25 cities to visit. Oaxaca and San Miguel captured gold and silver. Not only that – Mexico claimed two other cities on the list, with Mexico City ranked #11 and Mérida ranked #24. No other country claimed more than two cities on the list.
Somewhere above, my mother is smiling. A gringa who moved to Mexico as a young adult, she loved the place and its culture with the zeal of a convert, and she made sure her two sons got to know their country, even if it entailed some epically uncomfortable long bus rides. When we lived up north in Chihuahua, she was so shocked at how US-focused people were that she invited our best friends from school to join us on a trip south, so they could become familiar with their own country’s heartland and history. She always knew it was the best place on earth to visit.
Such rankings are of course subjective and somewhat arbitrary. The Oaxaca vs. San Miguel/Guanajuato debate is one that scratches the surface of core questions regarding the center of gravity of Mexican identity, questions best left to the likes of Octavio Paz and Juan Villoro. Suffice it to say that both places ooze charm, if measured differently by the competing US travel publications. And who’s to say that Merida really belongs one spot above the fabulous Krakow, ranked 25th?
Mexico’s strengths are largely atmospheric: the synthesis of vibrant indigenous civilizations with Spanish colonial charm; the temperate climate; the world’s best cuisine (that ranking is neither subjective nor arbitrary); that languid feeling of a late afternoon sitting in a town’s zócalo when the light is just so, the church bells are ringing, the kids are playing in the central kiosk, and you eye the approaching carrito de mangos. It may have been the Spanish author Federico García Lorca who wrote a line in one of his poems on how “la noche se puso íntima como una pequeña plaza,” but the sentiment is pure Mexican.
I could write a separate column about the glory of Mexico’s renowned beaches, but for now you’ll notice none of the four Mexican cities ranked among the world’s 25 best cities are on the coast. But sadly most American visitors don’t make it beyond Cancún, Baja, or Puerto Vallarta. I’ve had the opportunity through work to introduce many American colleagues to Mexico City, and their reaction is almost invariably some version of I-had-no-idea astonishment. European travelers, on the other hand, do have some idea, which is why in so many non-beach destinations in el Mexico profundo, you hear as much, if not more, French and German as you do English.
It may be a case of supposed familiarity, and proximity, breeding contempt. Many Americans think they know what Mexico is like, but that knowledge is often distorted and inaccurate, informed by glimpses of beach resorts or border towns, alarmist news reports, exaggerated warnings, and politicized attacks on Mexico, and caricatured notions (often encouraged by Hollywood) of what life in a “poor” country must be like. A long-term challenge for Mexico is to close the gap between how worldly editors at elite US travel magazines perceive the country and how most other Americans perceive it.
Coping with the fallout of the Covid-19 crisis is of course the more immediate challenge. Tourism worldwide has been growing at a healthy clip for years, but 2020 will bring that trendline to a halt. The Mexican government reports that in the first five months of the year, international visitors to the country are down by roughly a third from 2019, with foreign currency income from tourism down more than 40 percent. Mexico City alone claims to be losing $100 million a month from the pandemic’s hit to tourism. The US-Mexico border remains closed to non-essential travel until at least late August.
Despite boasting some of the world’s most admired destinations, Mexico ranks 7th in terms of the number of foreign tourists it receives, there is a long-term opportunity to further develop an industry that already accounts for somewhere between 10 and 20 percent (depending on how you measure it) of the country’s GDP. That effort will require improved marketing and substantial public investment in tourism infrastructure, so it’s disheartening that the López Obrador administration scrapped Mexico City’s much-needed new airport (at a time when Turkey, which surpassed Mexico in recent years in sixth place of foreign visitation, unveiled one of the world’s most impressive ones).
Mexico is reportedly preparing a new advertising campaign with a plaintive “Mexico Needs You” tagline. In my view we all need a little Mexico, too, so I went to the government’s “Visit Mexico” website to see how the country was being promoted these days. I was greeted with a screen saying the site wasn’t available due to a “lack of payment.” Reforma has reported this is the result of a hack, though the message has inexplicably been up for days.
All of which will be great fodder for humble, mischievous, malinchista humor. “Did you hear that our tourism site… “
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America Twitter: @AndresDCmtz