Can you say guacamole in Chinese?

For years, Mexican economists and businessmen have blamed economic woes on China. Now Mexico wants to be China's friend - or at least befriend many of the 34 million Chinese tourists expected to venture outside the mainland this year.

Eliza Barclay

(Fortune Magazine) -- For years, Mexican economists and businessmen have blamed economic woes on China, a country that has sucked away hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs and that exports to Mexico 17 times what Mexico sends to it. (Last year's trade deficit was $14 billion.)

Now Mexico wants to be China's friend--or at least befriend many of the 34 million Chinese tourists expected to venture outside the mainland this year. Mexico is hoping that its Mayan and Aztec ruins will appeal to the Chinese love of ancient history and that Mexico City and Guadalajara will attract urban enthusiasts. "Mexico's biggest challenge is to communicate tourism opportunities to the Chinese," says Enrique Dussel Peters, a China expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University. "Chinese tourists will not come automatically."

So the Mexican government opened its first tourism office in Beijing earlier this year and participated in China's biggest tourism fair for the fifth time. Some 150 travel agencies are licensed to handle Chinese tourists. And in November the Presidente InterContinental Hotel in Mexico City opened its first Chinese restaurant (with menus in Chinese). Several universities have started Mandarin programs for hospitality workers.

But attracting Chinese in large numbers won't be easy. Only 15,000 Chinese tourists are expected this year, most of them at beach resorts like Acapulco. One problem: No direct flights from China, requiring costly connections. Jorge Hernandez, president of the Mexican Association of Travel Agencies, says the recent privatization of the government carrier, Mexicana, has delayed direct flights, but he expects them sometime next year.  Top of page