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article imageQuake scares tourists from Mexico City's trendy heart

By Marc BURLEIGH (AFP)     Sep 22, 2017 in Travel

Tourism to Mexico City was dealt a harsh blow by this week's deadly quake, scaring off visitors and resulting in thousands of hotel cancellations in a central zone that is normally the buzzing, trendy heart of the city.

But by Friday, three days after the 7.1-magnitude earthquake levelled dozens of buildings, local hipsters were starting to return to the Condesa/Roma area, albeit in muted fashion out of respect for the deaths and damage evident in every second street.

Some cafes and restaurants were open, serving customers but also giving free food and drinks to rescue workers, police and soldiers deployed to toppled buildings that were sometimes just a few meters (yards) away.

But most places -- just a week ago filled with the coffee-and-laptop set -- were still shuttered.

Foreign tourists, usually drawn to the area for its artistic vibe and boutique stores, were absent.

Many had scrapped trips to Mexico City on news of the disaster.

Others, like Magali Ricoce, a 36-year-old Frenchwoman on her first visit to the city to see friends, lived through the quake and was traumatized by it.

"At one point I thought I was going to die," she said. The next day she was vomiting from stress as delayed shock set in.

Now, she has temporary lodgings with her friends but "it's a bit like being a refugee... I'm no longer thinking like a tourist, I'm more thinking 'I'm happy to be alive'."

Though rattled, she said she might return in the future.

But, she said: "I came across tourists who were leaving their hotels with their bags -- they were totally in the tourist mindset of wanting to go home."

- Hotel losses -

For hotels in the quake-hit area, that exodus and an avalanche of cancellations meant an immediate blow to business.

"We've had a lot of cancellations," said Erick Vargas, front desk manager at one hotel in the area, City Express.

His hotel had been fully booked, but when news of the quake flashed around the planet, 300 confirmed nights that had been reserved suddenly evaporated -- a loss of nearly $40,000 that was expected to double when bookings for later dates were included, he said.

Although the hotel and its guests emerged from the seismic upheaval unscathed, it found itself in a zone suddenly deserted apart from frantic rescue operations.

Vargas said he himself was made homeless because his place in Roma was a couple of doors up from a building that had become unstable.

"I haven't been able to get in. I've been living in the hotel since," with his flat-mate and his dog, he said.

- Return to 'a bit of life' -

In one of the cafes open in Roma, Bubba Tea & Co., staff were giving away free meals to soldiers.

The owners -- who had opened the place just five weeks ago -- had struggled with whether to resume business for customers, or whether to stay closed out of respect for the pervasive mourning around them.

It was local residents themselves who convinced them to open.

"It was a way to help them. They wanted coffee, not just basic water and stuff -- they want a bit of life back," explained Ingrid Gonzalez-Gracida, who runs the place with her husband.

"This area is usually very lively, very hipster, there are a lot of artists," she said, comparing it with justification to New York City's trendy Brooklyn borough.

As for the foreign tourists who used to saunter around the eateries and galleries, she said: "I don't know where they are. They are afraid. We hope they return."

- Tourism campaign -

That is precisely the challenge facing Mexico's tourism secretary, Enrique de la Madrid.

He told a tourism industry publication, Travel Weekly, that while structural evaluations were still going on for Mexico City hotels, "our infrastructure was mostly unaffected" across the vast city.

Rather than withdraw tourist promotions, his office was forging on with a new campaign to be launched on Monday, focusing on the country's diversity.

"The main destinations of the country had not been affected at all. And even in Mexico City, the tourist areas were not affected," he said.

"We decided it was more important than ever to let everyone know we're still standing. If people are wondering how to help support Mexico, the answer is to travel to Mexico."

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