By ELISABETH MALKIN | AUG 18, 2020 3:34 PM
The gibberish that recently popped up on Mexico’s flagship tourism website was so bizarre that it might as well have been concocted by a competitor.
Earlier this month, viewers browsing the English-language entries on VisitMexico.com spotted that many geographical names had been translated literally. The Pacific Coast state of Guerrero, named after a hero of Mexican independence, was rendered as “Warrior.” The northern city of Saltillo became “Little Jump”—both translations as robotically correct as they were embarrassing.
There were more curiosities. The website offered a link to “Mexico Hyper” and declared that the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende was founded in the “XNUMXth” century. And to Twitter’s delight, Ciudad Madero became quite simply “Log,” rolling over the tribute to the slain President Francisco I. Madero.
Not all the translations were literal. Tulum, the Mayan fortress overlooking the Caribbean, somehow became “Jumpsuit,” which brings to mind the bohos who crowd the nearby resort but is otherwise inexplicable.
Mexico’s tourism ministry, known as Sectur, quickly issued an apology and declared that it would take legal action against those who were responsible for the damage. The website was frozen, plastered with a photo of San Miguel and a promise that a new website would be ready by Thursday.
The comic episode is a cautionary tale about the risks of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s program of “republican austerity,” which has scythed vast areas of Mexico’s bureaucracy.
Nobody could defend the waste and mismanagement of Mexico’s previous administrations, but López Obrador’s cuts are so close to the bone that they affect everything from health care spending to environmental protection and scientific research.
And when it comes to promoting Mexico overseas—whether to attract foreign tourists or investors—López Obrador has seen no value in spending on outreach. He has traveled outside of Mexico just once since taking office in December 2018 (his short visit to Washington in July), avoiding the international summit meetings and United Nations speeches that his predecessors used to project Mexican soft power. He has famously been trying to sell the presidential 787.
Instead, he has repeatedly argued that “the best foreign policy is domestic policy,” shorthand for his twin goals of attacking graft and reducing Mexico’s stubborn poverty.
That single-minded focus on Mexico’s domestic affairs betrays a shaky understanding of how much Mexico has become intertwined with the rest of the world, and how countries must vie against each other, like it or not, for a slice of global attention. Instead, López Obrador appears to believe that his beloved Mexico sells itself and needs no advertising. He also closed down a federal agency charged with attracting foreign investment, as he seems to believe he can woo foreign investment with a phone call placed to a multinational CEO and a meeting in the imposing National Palace for executives who come calling.
And his approach to tourism reverts back to an era of 1970s megaprojects, with a plan to build a “Mayan Train” around the Yucatán Peninsula. To help finance the billions Mexico will spend to build the train, López Obrador shut down the government’s tourism marketing arm and diverted its budget (funded by taxes paid by foreign visitors) to construction.
That agency, called the Mexican Tourism Promotion Board, was a clear example of the sort of bloated spending López Obrador set out to eliminate. In 2018, it spent almost $300 million, ran 23 overseas offices, and employed more than 200 people in Mexico and abroad. López Obrador argued that the tourism ministry and Mexico’s diplomats could handle the marketing job instead.
Among the board’s promotional efforts was the VisitMexico.com website, which had developed a steady following, directing visitors to cultural and natural attractions along with the beach resorts that are still Mexico’s main sales pitch. Compared with the rest of the board’s lavish spending on salaries, events, and advertising—it sunk $14.5 million into advertising during three NFL games played there in 2018—VisitMexico was a relative bargain. In 2018, it cost about $260,000 to maintain, according to Mexico’s finance ministry, although its content was developed by ad agencies as part of contracts worth millions each year.
The chain of errors that led to the scandal over the translations is unclear and likely to remain murky as the dispute goes into court. But the incident shows how quickly a valuable digital asset can disintegrate when placed in the wrong hands. And the saga of Mexico’s online portal to the world augurs poorly for Mexico as the global tourist industry prepares to bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic.
Rates of COVID-19 infection and deaths have yet to begin falling in Mexico as the government has failed to bring the pandemic under control, and the U.S. still advises against visiting the country. But Mexico’s tourism industry is already looking ahead, as are plenty of Caribbean competitors, to winter high season in the hope that some travelers may be lured to travel again, even before the coast is declared entirely clear.
In the competition over such limited global tourism demand, though, Mexico cannot risk missteps—such as lasting ridicule over its flagship travel website.
“There is damage to the brand’s reputation,” said Francisco Madrid Flores, the director of the Center for Research and Tourist Competitiveness at Anáhuac University in Mexico City. The loss of visitors may be less severe, he added, because low demand means that few people were likely to have been consulting the website.
Before the pandemic struck, international travel to Mexico had been steadily climbing over the past decade, and the country ranked seventh in the world in the number of tourists it received in 2018, with 41 million visitors. The growth was driven by the improving United States economy (at least until the pandemic struck) as well as marketing by the tourism board and by private tourism companies, said Madrid, who was also a former undersecretary at Sectur from 2000 to 2008.
(Some of Mexico’s states and resorts operate their own marketing campaigns, although one of the most recent ones struck a decidedly false note. “Mom, I’m in Acapulco,” a social media campaign portraying ultrarich Mexicans preening with decidedly pre-COVID closeness, was quickly withdrawn under an onslaught of criticism.)
Now Sectur faces the global collapse of the tourism industry without a marketing budget—or, it appears, a website that offers the digital tools that many destinations use to market their offerings, streamline travel planning, drive traffic to hotels and tour operators, and gather data on visitors.
The problem goes back to the way the tourism secretary, Miguel Torruco, chose to resolve the problem created by López Obrador’s budget cuts. To keep the VisitMexico website running, Torruco ceded the trademark and the site’s operation to a private company called Braintivity, which promised to finance the site through advertising and payments from state governments.
Not one peso of federal money would go to VisitMexico, promised Torruco, explaining why the contract did not go out for a public bid.
Braintivity, a digital media company that does not appear to have a website, is run by Marcos Achar, a businessman who sold his family’s paint company for $2.3 billion in 2014. Whether he could transfer that success to the tech and the tourism industries was never questioned.
Handing over a public website did not sit well with everyone in the ministry. Torruco “privatized the trademark,” said Simón Levy, who resigned as tourism undersecretary shortly before the Braintivity agreement was announced. “That’s 100 percent what the problem was.”
The site went back up—complete with the mortifying translations. Sectur said that Tecnocen had hacked the site. Tecnocen said that it was asked to move the site’s content to a new platform and that the automatic transfer led to the bungled translations.
While the site remains frozen, the question is whether the damage will be long-term or simply be recalled as an absurd chapter in Mexico’s marketing story. Meanwhile, VisitMexico is losing the valuable backlinks and the other data that help push it up in Google’s search engine optimization rankings.
Levy and Madrid both say the site’s reputation and prominence can be rebuilt. “It will take time and it will take investment,” said Madrid, warning that Mexican tourism needed government spending to support it, particularly after the collapse caused by the pandemic. Until the coronavirus struck, tourism accounted for almost 9 percent of Mexico’s economy and more than 4 million jobs.
And the president’s radical austerity, along with the widespread suspicion that some of the previous administrations’ big budgets disappeared into thin air? Madrid repeated a version of an old advertising adage: “Half of what you spend on marketing is wasted. The problem is which half.”