The gibberish that popped up on Mexico’s flagship tourism website recently was so bizarre it could just as easily have been cooked up by a competitor.
Earlier this month, viewers browsing the English entries on VisitMexico.com noticed that many geographic names had been translated literally. The state of Guerrero on the Pacific Coast, named after a Mexican independence hero, was rendered as a “warrior”. The northern town of Saltillo has become “Little Jump” – two translations that are as robotically correct as they are embarrassing.
There were more curiosities. The website linked to “Mexico Hyper” and stated that the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende was founded in the “XNUMX” century. And to Twitter’s delight, Ciudad Madero has simply become “Log”, passing the tribute to assassinated President Francisco I. Madero.
Not all translations were literal. Tulum, the Mayan fortress overlooking the Caribbean, has become something of a “Jumpsuit,” reminiscent of the bohos who invade the nearby resort but is otherwise inexplicable.
Mexico’s tourism ministry, known as Sectur, quickly apologized and said it would take legal action against those responsible for the damage. The website was frozen, covered with a photo of San Miguel and a promise that a new website would be ready by Thursday.
The comedy episode is an edifying tale of the risks of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s “republican austerity” program, which has mowed down large areas of the Mexican bureaucracy.
No one 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 spending to environmental protection and research. scientist.
And when it comes to promoting Mexico abroad – whether to attract tourists or foreign investors – López Obrador saw no value in spending on awareness. He has only traveled outside of Mexico once since taking office in December 2018 (his short visit to Washington in July), avoiding international summits and United Nations speeches his predecessors used to project. Mexican soft power. He tried to sell the presidential 787.
Instead, he has repeatedly argued that “the best foreign policy is domestic policy,” a shorthand for its dual purpose of attacking corruption and reducing Mexico’s stubborn poverty.
This unique focus on Mexican internal affairs betrays a fragile understanding of just how intimately linked Mexico has become to the rest of the world, and how countries must compete against each other, like it or not, for a part. global attention. Instead, López Obrador seems to believe his beloved Mexico sells and doesn’t need publicity. He also shut down a federal agency charged with attracting foreign investment, as he appears to believe he can woo foreign investment with a phone call made to a CEO of a multinational and a meeting in the imposing National Palace for them. executives who come to call.
And his approach to tourism goes back to the megaproject era of the 1970s, with a plan to build a “Mayan train” around the Yucatán Peninsula. To help fund the billions that 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.
This agency, called the Mexican Tourism Promotion Council, was a clear example of the kind of inflated spending that López Obrador set out to eliminate. In 2018, he spent almost $ 300 million, managed 23 overseas offices, and employed over 200 people in Mexico and abroad. López Obrador argued that the tourism ministry and Mexican diplomats could instead take care of marketing.
Among the council’s promotional efforts was the VisitMexico.com website, which had developed a constant following, directing visitors to the cultural and natural attractions as well as the resorts that are still Mexico’s main selling point. Compared to the rest of the council’s lavish spending on salaries, events, and advertising – it invested $ 14.5 million in advertising in three NFL games played there in 2018 – VisitMexico was a relative boon. In 2018, it cost around $ 260,000 to maintain, according to Mexico’s finance ministry, although its content was developed by advertising agencies under contracts worth millions each year.
The chain of errors that led to the translations scandal is unclear and will likely remain murky as the dispute is brought to court. But the incident shows how quickly a valuable digital asset can disintegrate when placed in the wrong hands. And the Mexican online portal’s saga to the world does not bode well for Mexico as the global tourism industry prepares to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 infection and death rates have yet to start dropping in Mexico as the government has failed to bring the pandemic under control and the United States is still advising against visiting the country. But the Mexican tourism industry is already, like many Caribbean competitors, considering the peak winter season in the hopes that some travelers will be enticed to travel again, even before the coast is declared fully clear.
However, in the competition for such limited global tourism demand, Mexico can’t risk missteps – like a lasting ridicule on its flagship travel website.
“The brand’s reputation is tarnished,” said Francisco Madrid Flores, director of the Center for Tourism Research and Competitiveness at Anáhuac University in Mexico City. The loss of visitors may be less severe, he added, as low demand means few people are likely to have viewed the website.
Before the pandemic struck, international travel to Mexico had been on the rise over the past decade and the country ranked seventh in the world for the number of tourists received in 2018, with 41 million visitors. Growth has been driven by improving the U.S. economy (at least until the pandemic hits) as well as marketing from the tourism board and private tourism companies, said Madrid, who was also former undersecretary at Sectur from 2000 to 2008.
(Some states and resorts in Mexico are running their own marketing campaigns, even though one of the most recent ones was decidedly bogus, was quickly removed under an assault of critics.)
Today, Sectur faces the global collapse of the tourism industry with no marketing budget – or, it seems, a website that offers the digital tools that many destinations use to market their offerings, streamline the planning trips, driving traffic to hotels and tour operators, and gathering visitor data.
The problem dates back to how Tourism Secretary Miguel Torruco chose to tackle the problem created by López Obrador’s budget cuts. To ensure the operation of the VisitMexico website, Torruco ceded the branding and operation of the site to a private company called Braintivity, which promised to fund the site through advertising and payments from state governments.
Not a peso of federal money would go to VisitMexico, Torruco promised, explaining why the contract was not launched for a public offering.
Braintivity, a digital media company that doesn’t appear to have a website, is run by Marcos Achar, a businessman who sold his family’s painting business for $ 2.3 billion in 2014. He doesn’t There was never any question of whether he could transfer this success to the technology and tourism industries. interrogates.
Providing a public website was not for everyone in the department. Torruco “privatized the brand,” said Simón Levy, who stepped down as tourism undersecretary shortly before the announcement of the Braintivity deal. “It’s 100% the problem.”
Achar promised a website redesign, but over the months there was no sign of it. At least one contractor Achar has publicly named has quietly left the project after struggling to collect payment from Braintivity. Then, at the end of July, the unrest erupted when Braintivity’s web hosting company Tecnocen shut down the site, claiming it had not been paid. A few days later, Tecnocen declared that it had handed over the site codes and archives to Sectur.
The site came together – with the mortifying translations. Sectur said Tecnocen hacked the site. Tecnocen said it had been asked to move the site’s content to a new platform and the automatic transfer resulted in failed translations.
While the site remains frozen, the question is whether the damage will be long term, or whether it will simply be remembered as an absurd chapter in Mexican marketing history. Meanwhile, VisitMexico is losing valuable backlinks and other data that helps push it up Google’s search engine optimization rankings.
Levy and Madrid both say the reputation and importance of the site can be rebuilt. “It will take time and investment,” Madrid said, warning that Mexican tourism needed public spending to support it, especially after the collapse caused by the pandemic. Until the coronavirus hit, tourism represented nearly 9% of the Mexican economy and more than 4 million jobs.
What about the president’s radical austerity, as well as the widespread suspicion that some of the big budgets of previous administrations have vanished 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. ”
Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.