MEXICO CITY — “I hadn’t heard anything about the flu, I was wondering why people were wearing their little masks,” said Magdalena, a young Polish tourist in the center of Mexico City.
Confused foreign tourists wandered the streets of the sprawling capital Saturday, as its famous museums closed and most Mexicans worried about a deadly new strain of swine flu.
“Everything is pretty normal for tourists, it’s mainly us Mexicans who are afraid,” Laura Estrada, who works for the capital’s tourist office, told AFP.
Many Mexicans donned surgical face masks and tried to avoid usual physical greetings, while tourists walked away disappointed from many attractions on discovering that they were closed.
“I think it’s good that the government is using preventive measures, although they seem a bit too much,” said 29-year-old Irishman Connor Murphy.
“We didn’t know that it was all closed. We’re going to buy souvenirs,” said Mamem Martin, a Spanish tourist standing nearby with a group of friends.
“It all seems a bit over the top,” she added. “I don’t really believe in crazy alarms.”
The World Health Organization on Saturday branded the outbreak of a new strain of swine flu “a public health emergency of international concern,” after as many as 68 people died in Mexico, and at least eight cases were reported in the United States.
WHO chief Margaret Chan warned that the virus had “pandemic potential”.
Mexico’s tourist officials waited nervously to see the spread of the outbreak and its impact on an industry already suffering from media reports of gruesome drug violence, mainly in northern border areas, with more than 7,000 killed in drug attacks since the start of last year.
Some 22-23 million foreign tourists, mostly from the United States, usually visit Mexico each year.
“Tourism to Mexico continues at its usual flow and, until now, there’s no international warning from any government or country for trips to national territory,” the tourism ministry said Saturday.
A handful of tourists wore surgical masks as they mounted a tourist bus to cross the city.
Bus officials said they were doing good business because so many attractions were closed to the public.
“A lot of people are getting on the Turibus because everything is closed. We’ve recorded a rise in demand to go to the Teotihuacan pyramids” outside the city, said Luz Elena, selling tickets.
Mexican tourists were down, however, said waitresses in a nearby restaurant.
And foreign tourists were set to be disappointed in the coming days.
As well as museum closures, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard said Friday that 553 sporting and cultural events had been cancelled for at least 10 days.
Religious buildings remained open, however, with shorter services and instructions for priests to give Communion in the hand instead of on the tongue.
Guadalupe Rodriguez, a receptionist at the Catedral hostel near the main cathedral, said most of her 40 guests were concerned.
“Some are annoyed that everything is closed, but others are worried that it’s a real alert and they want to leave,” Rodriguez said.
“Three people who were going to stay longer decided to leave today.”