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Mexican tourism, a key to recovery, springs back after earthquake sag

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What a difference a month can make. Last month, rescue efforts in the Mexican earthquake rubble were the drama for dinnertime television news. Anxious tourists canceled vacations. Mexico City hotels saw a 50 percent drop in business. Bookings at other resorts slipped 10 to 15 percent.

Economists warned that if Mexico lost too many tourist dollars, it could seriously jeopardize its ability to cover interest payments on its $96 billion foreign debt.

Mexico still isn't out of the woods. The reconstruction price tag is climbing to $5 billion. Prices on oil, a critical source of foreign currency, remain soft. But Mexico did get a six-month reprieve on foreign loan payments.

And one very important area -- tourism -- is starting to rebound.

``Bookings have returned just about to normal,'' says Tim Warnock, vice-president at Firstours, a Denver subsidiary of the Carlson Company, one of the largest tour agencies in the United States.

Other agents contacted confirm nearly normal bookings at Mexican resorts. In fact, Canc'un and some other east coast resorts (the earthquakes were centered on the Pacific coast) have drawn more vacationers than last year at this time. But travelers are still shunning Mexico City. And there is some regional variation.

For Americans in the Northeast, bookings at Acapulco are ``very slow'' and at Ixtapa are ``almost nonexistent,'' says Doug Frank, vice-president of agency sales at the Boston-based Trans National Travel. Firstours reports the earthquakes had little effect on bookings from the West Coast, while Chicago trade did fall off.

To counter this, officials from the Mexican tourism department are now on a revival mission -- meeting with travel agents and the news media in 19 cities in the United States and Canada.

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