By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
For the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, tourism has never been the chief economic engine.
In fact, with the sole exception of its world-renowned Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon) — a chasm system that is far larger, deeper and more spectacular than the Grand Canyon — Chihuahua has little to offer in the way of major tourist attractions (although it has always been popular as a ecotourism and adventure tourism destination).
Instead, the Estado Libre y Soberano de Chihuahua (the state’s official name) has focused on building its economy on assembly plants and high-tech industries (specialized automotive parts, computer components and, especially, aerospace technology), which account for the lion’s share of the state’s gross internal product.
Chihuahua has the fifth-highest manufacturing GDP in Mexico, and ranks second for the most factories funded by foreign direct investment.
And as home to the industrial powerhouse of Ciudad Juárez — with over 300 maquiladoras churning out parts for virtually every type of transnational industry — it is the hub of in-bond assembly plants nationwide.
The largest Mexican state in terms of geographic area, Chihuahua is also an important agricultural center (famous for its apples and dairy products) and has a robust mining industry,
Still, tourism, which in 2019 represented revenues to the tune of about 76 billion pesos (19 percent of the state’s 396 billion-peso GDP), is a rising contributor to the Chihuahua economy and is considered by the state’s pro-business governor, Javier Corral Jurado (from the conservative National Action Party, or PAN), an up-and-coming sector with a significant potential for growth.
Or, at least, it was, until covid-19 came along.
Like nearly every aspect of economic life in Mexico and most of the rest of the world, the coronavirus pandemic has taken a heavy toll on Chihuahua’s budding tourism industry.
Like nearly every aspect of economic life in Mexico and most of the rest of the world, the coronavirus pandemic has taken a heavy toll on Chihuahua’s budding tourism industry, slashing both leisure and business travel to the state to practically nil in the last few months.
“Last year, we had about 7 million visitors to our state, counting both business and recreational tourism,” Chihuahua State Tourism Promotion Trust Director General Francisco Moreno Villafuerte told Pulse News Mexico.
“Now we have practically zilch, and we are expecting it to remain down for most of the rest of the year.”
But even before the Chihuahua economy fully reopens for business (the state is carefully moving toward a cautious orange-light reactivation on a region-by-region basis, with the hopes of having a statewide yellow-light classification come August), Moreno Villafuerte and his team are working hard to jumpstart its sputtering tourism industry.
Media campaigns and promotions through Mexican consulate offices are helping to get the word out that Chihuahua will soon be back in the hospitality business, he said.
Medical tourism was among the most promising divisions of the tourist trade for Chihuahua before the pandemic hit.
One area of tourism that Moreno Villafuerte is particularly interested in promoting is medical tourism, which was among the most promising divisions of the tourist trade before the pandemic hit.
“Medical tourism represents less than 4 percent of our state’s tourism, but it brings in a lot of money.” he said.
“The average visitor to the state spends about $320 per visit, while the medical tourist spends about $2,500 per visit.”
Before the covid-19 outbreak, medical tourism in Mexico was one of the most dynamic new draws for foreign visitors, attracting nearly 1 million international patients in 2019 (up from 200,000 just 12 years earlier), many from the U.S. states of California, Arizona and Texas, and Chihuahua was right up there in the top five Mexican states for medical tourism.
Chihuahua’s close geographic proximity to the United States (and to a lesser degree, Canada) and affordable dental, optometric, bariatric and aesthetic procedures (which can run from 45 to 70 percent less than in other countries) are a big draw for international medical tourists, Moreno Villafuerte said.
Chihuahua’s close geographic proximity to the United States and affordable dental, optometric, bariatric and aesthetic procedures are a big draw for international medical tourists.
Chihuahua has a broad selection of private hospital and clinic installations, and also boasts a world-class oncological center.
Moreover, Chihuahua has one of the highest specialist to general physician ratios in Mexico, and while its hospitals are not accredited to the Joint Commission International (JCI), they all comply with and frequently surpass international medical safety standards.
Moreno Villafuerte said that the state is now implementing even higher medical safety standards and social distancing practices to ensure that patients who do opt to be treated in Chihuahua are protected from exposure to the coronavirus.
And with direct flights from Dallas, Houston, Denver and Albuquerque, and access to many other major U.S. cities through connections, Chihuahua is easy to reach.
In October, Chihuahua will host the 12th World Medical Tourism Congress, providing a showcase for the state’s exceptional facilities and specialists.
“We have all been hit, in one way or another, by the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic,” Moreno Villafuerte said.
“And we are all doing our part to help get the economy back on track. Tourism, and especially medical tourism, are going to be important catalysts in reactivating the Chihuahua economy.”