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‘Strange, intimidating and puzzling’: Tourism experts on Mexican army’s plans to offer leisure services

Aside from how military-trained personnel will run tourism hospitality services, the initiatives beg the question: will tourists even want to avail themselves of such resources?

MEXICO CITY (CN) — When she heard that Mexico's army plans to get in on the country's civilian tourism game, Kathleen Andereck was stumped. 

“I don’t quite get why,” Andereck told Courthouse News in a phone interview. 

As a professor of community development, sustainability and natural resource management at Arizona State University, she has worked with local, state and federal agencies and organizations and seen a variety of approaches to vacationing. But she had to admit that the military running regular tourism services is out of the ordinary.

“There may be some things like this in Cuba or other more socialist or communist countries, but it definitely is unusual in a place like Mexico, which is essentially a market-driven economy,” she said.

Other specialists in the vacation business were similarly surprised by the idea. 

“Interesting. I have never heard of such a thing,” Terry Selk of the Tourism Expert Network said of the initiative. 

The only comparable enterprise that Dallen Timothy of Arizona State’s Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation could think of was the Demilitarized Zone along the border between North and South Korea, where South Korean soldiers give the tours. Still, the militarization is the draw there, while Mexico’s military has customary beach and jungle vacations in mind. 

During President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s term, the armed forces have been put in charge of several tourism infrastructure projects, including Mexico City’s new airport AIFA, another in the Caribbean coastal town of Tulum, and two lines of the Maya Train tourist railway. 

The military also administers the Quinamétzin Paleontological Museum located on the Santa Lucía air base, where the capital’s new airport was built. 

But a massive leak of documents hacked from the Secretariat of National Defense (Sedena) released last week revealed that the army’s plans to get into the tourism game are much more elaborate and diversified than was previously known. 

Leaked by a group of hackers known as Guacamaya (Macaw), the internal Sedena documents reveal that Mexico’s army has plans to operate hotels, national parks, more museums and an airline.

Army soldiers walk among civilians at the inauguration of Mexico City's new airport AIFA on Mar. 21, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

In September, the federal government authorized a company run by the navy to operate ferries and other tourism services at the Islas Marías, an archipelago off the Pacific coast near the state of Nayarit. 

Aside from how military-trained personnel will run tourism hospitality services, the initiatives beg the question: will tourists even want to avail themselves of such resources?

“I don’t think you’d find a lot of people in the U.S. — and probably a lot of other countries, either — being especially supportive or positive about the military running tourism businesses,” said Andereck. “If you have the military walking around with guns in their hands, obviously, that’s intimidating.”

The United States is Mexico’s biggest foreign tourism market. U.S. tourists make up around 80% of the air arrivals of foreign nationals, according to Mexico’s Secretariat of Foreign Affairs.

While tourists are accustomed to high levels of security in airports, Andereck said that they may not take too kindly to heavily armed officers in the other businesses the army is venturing into.

“I don’t think it would go over well in most other countries,” she said. 

Other potential problems include tourism sector jobs being taken by military personnel, rather than civilians from the communities where the services are provided, “which is a really negative aspect of it,” Andereck added. 

The government has said that enterprises like the Islas Marías company will be “of low environmental impact,” but the construction of the Maya Train may put such a claim in doubt. A lawsuit brought by conservationists in April was just one of dozens of legal challenges against the project. That suit held that construction on the train had begun without the legally necessary environmental impact surveys and that the train threatens the Yucatán peninsula’s water supply and biodiversity.

Given the private sector’s environmental track record in tourism, however, the army will likely do no more harm than nonpublic enterprise, Andereck said.

She also questioned whether or not the military has the professional knowledge and skill to operate the companies successfully. 

Mexican National Guard soldiers carry long guns among civilians on opening day at Mexico City's new airport AIFA on Mar. 21, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

It will have to organize vacations on top of its duties to build infrastructure megaprojects, provide aid during natural disasters and participate in public safety operations, among other responsibilities. 

“There’s also that whole issue of spreading themselves too thin, not just in terms of numbers of people to do the work, but also in terms of expertise,” she said. 

Many in the tourism profession hold 4-year degrees in hospitality, sustainability, resource management or other fields, and there are several specializations within the sector itself.

“An airport is not a hotel, so then the expertise is spread even more thin,” said Andereck. “They just don’t have those levels of expertise in the military.”

But quality of service is not really the point, according to security specialist Alejandro Hope.

"Customer service isn't really the priority," he said. "The companies they're planning on making will be done with the same logic as AIFA and the Maya Train. They're going to suck on the budget, they'll be heavily subsidized, and whether they earn or lose money is irrelevant."

For Hope, what has stood out among the documents released from the Guacamaya hack has been the low level of quality of the projects and activities of the military, and he sees no reason why its venture into tourism should be any different.

"This is an army that has not modernized in decades, that has not been forced by external threats or internal pressures to change the way it thinks and functions, and it's bringing that mindset to a whole range of new activities," he said, adding that the military will likely find private sector partners to help with its tourism operations, "once the private sector realizes that as long as Morena is in power, they can't lose money."

With these highly subsidized, poor quality tourism services, the losers in the game will ultimately be the Mexican taxpayer and the clients that hire the army's services.

"There's all kinds of ways in which this could end up being a mistake," said Andereck.

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