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Do the airport arrivals lobbies in Mexico give a bad one? Or do we just need to adjust our gaze?
Flying into a popular beach destination in Mexico (I'm looking at you Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, and Los Cabos) seems to offer what many consider a bad first impression of this country. Is this a problem Mexico needs to deal with? According to someone I spoke with recently at one of these airports, it is.
40+ million people visit Mexico from the U.S. every year, along with 4 million from Canada. Of those number, a good majority is flying to one of the beach destinations I listed above. And some healthy fraction of that number are first time visitors. Here's where the problem comes in: if you don't know what to expect, and how to ignore it, your head is going to literally spin from all of the people lining the entry corridor just beyond customs waiting to part you from your time, money, or both. It's not that these people haunting the airport arrivals area are criminals or dangerous. They decidedly are not. But they are not entirely on the up-and-up either. They will tell you - often fervently - that they are your ride. Some of these people have an uncanny way of knowing exactly where you are going, and they will mention your destination resort or hotel by name and insist that they are there to give you a ride to said destination.
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Technically, they are not lying. They will give you a ride to your destination, wherever it is. But first, they will take you to a time share presentation where you'll get maybe a free drink, a free meal, and a hard sell. But they are not the ride you were expecting. If you arranged a ride to your destination, these guys are not it. If you didn't arrange a ride, these guys are still not it.
But if you've never been to Mexico before, how would you know that these guys are not your ride? For many tourists, they don't know. Which is why these people hang out in the airport day in and day out - it works. But doesn't this make Mexico look bad to these first time visitors (or even for repeat visitors or residents who don't like to be harassed as they hurry to their legitimate transportation)? When some unknowing visitor accepts a ride to their destination from some random person at the airport with a logo on their shirt and then is taken to a time-share presentation, what is their immediate impression of Mexico going to be? Having never fallen for these tactics myself, I can only guess. But I'm guessing the impression would include a lack of trust, a belief that Mexicans are only interested in selling you something, a belief that you - the tourist - are simply an economic target.
These aren't great impressions to give someone arriving in your country for the first time. So why don't the local governments or the airports do something about it? Why allow these negative first impressions to occur at all? Shouldn't Mexico do something?
Uh... not necessarily?
One of the great things about Mexico is the ease with which people can come up with an idea about how to make money, and then put that idea into practice (I'm talking about legitimate enterprises). Do you have a good tamale recipe passed down to you from your abuela? Do you want to take that recipe, make tamales, and drive around town selling them out of the trunk of your car? Go for it. 20 different government agencies aren't going to stop you because you didn't get inspected, didn't get a variety of permits (note: you may need a permit to conduct business in some city centers in Mexico), aren't up to date on your unemployment insurance. I'm not arguing that some level of regulation isn't sometimes useful; but in Mexico, one's right to earn a living is not only a practical consideration (it is better for all of society if as many people as possible are employed, self or otherwise), it is a constitutional right. And too many regulations would deflate your tamale-selling entrepreneurial spirit.
But the low friction for performing some job to earn money means that there is lower friction for those people earning money through means that we might classify as socially uncomfortable. If you've spent time on any popular, public beach in Mexico, you've experienced being approached over and over again by adults and children selling food and other goods. Maybe you find that annoying and get tired of saying "no, gracias". But does that mean that the people selling stuff on the beach shouldn't be there? That the way they have chosen to make a living should be cut off to them? My belief is that regulating people to the extent that they can no longer try to sell you stuff on the beach - or sell you a time share at the airport - is too much regulation, and it wouldn't do Mexico any favors if it started throwing rules around like that.
Mexico is a place where personal responsibility is more important than it is in a lot of wealthier and more developed countries. For the most part, we can get away with expecting governments to have placed visible and invisible safeguards around us in the U.S., Canada, most European countries, Japan, etc. Looking at the world as a whole, though, those places are the exception, not the rule. The majority of the world's countries (and popular travel destinations) lack the wealth, infrastructure, or perhaps even the belief, that their governments exist to help protect people from their own lack of attention, lack of situational awareness, naïveté - whatever you want to call it. The fact is, those people at the beach resort airports in Mexico? They are going to tell you the truth. They are going to tell you that they are taking you to a presentation in exchange for a free ride and a free lunch. They might even ask you for some earnest money to get you to go to the presentation later. Everything they do should give you all the information you need to make the right decision. If you don't want to dedicate some of your vacation time to sitting through a presentation, say "no gracias". It's that simple.
Am I just a libertarian shill?
I hope not. I do believe in some level of government regulations; I'm not a chaos agent or an anarchist. I don't want to watch the world burn. I am an advocate for personal responsibility though; you can't live in Mexico without understanding and acknowledging personal responsibility. The infrastructure and policies in places like the U.S. and Canada that are designed to protect citizens and visitors from many harmful potentialities simply don't exist here (you have to look no further than the sidewalk to figure that out!). And while we can argue that they should exist, that's not going to change the current reality.
I don't want to sound like I'm victim-shaming either, even though I have a hard time characterizing getting caught up in a time share presentation as being victimized (first world problems). I do want to offer helpful and practical advice though. So, when in Mexico, understand that the guardrails that you may be used to living with don't necessarily exist there. Listen to your instincts. Watch for things that sound too coincidental, or that might be too good to be true. Be wary of "free" products or services. And here is something more concrete: walk by everyone at the airport arrivals lobby1. And enjoy your visit, because the enjoyable parts far outweigh and outnumber the little annoyances.
I believe this is only a problem at the 3 beach airports I mentioned - this is because those destinations are where the vast majority of the tourists are going, and they are where the vast majority of time-share properties exist.