SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, RGV – South Padre Island mayor and hotel owner Barry Patel says President Trump’s anti-Mexico rhetoric is hurting bookings for next month’s Semana Santa (Holy Week) holiday.
Semana Santa week starts Sunday, April 9. In an interview with News Talk 710 KURV, Patel said many Mexican visitors stay in the Rio Grande Valley for Holy Week, many spending three or four days on South Padre.
“The bookings are disappointing,” Patel said, referencing Semana Santa, while also acknowledging that many Mexican visitors book at the last minute. He said his hotels closely study demand generators and the number of inquiries they receive, either by phone or email or Facebook marketing.
“We are seeing more negative stuff coming out because of the political rhetoric right now. In previous years, we never saw anything like this,” Patel told KURV.
Hotels on SPI, along with the Islands’ convention and visitors’ bureau, are doing all they can to make Mexican visitors feel welcome, its mayor said.
“We want them to come and feel welcome and feel at home on South Padre Island during Semana Santa, and then, of course, right through the year. But, we are a little disappointed, and it may be because of the political rhetoric right now, that they feel unwelcome here,” Patel told KURV.
“But, I can say, categorically, that South Padre Island has gone out and done everything we can. From the hotels, where we give a special welcome to the individuals that are coming in from Mexico with goodie bags and things like that. Our Convention and Visitors Bureau is also up to speed on that. So, anybody that is coming from Mexico during Semana Santa can put the message out now that you are more than welcome here and we will make sure you feel right at home.”
KURV’s morning show presenter, Tim Sullivan, joked that all the Donald Trump for President signs should come down on SPI, so Mexican visitors feel more welcome. His co-presenter, Sergio Sanchez, joked that Mexican tourists should be made aware that the border wall would not be built before Semana Santa.
Patel responded: “The wall has nothing to do with these folks who are coming through the border. They are coming legally and they have visas. It has nothing to do with those folks. I think they feel insulted when you generalize. I think that is dangerous and that affects our economy in a negative way.”
Trump kicked off his presidential campaign, in June 2015, with these infamous words: “When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Patel said Trump was wrong to generalize.
“The president is a hotel owner, just like myself. I think he gets it and I hope he comes around to that understanding that we cannot generalize.”
Asked by Sanchez if, as rumor has it, Trump owns property on South Padre Island, Patel said: “Not that I know of but he is welcome to invest down here.”
Rio Grande Guardian interview
In an in-depth video interview with the Rio Grande Guardian at one of his hotels, the Hilton Garden Inn, Patel was more forthright in his criticism of Trump.
“Tourism has the greatest return on investment in comparison with any other industry. The natural beauty of South Padre Island, people do not talk about that. Twenty percent of our retail trade, our hotel trade, comes from Mexico. Fifty percent of our upper range condos are owned by Mexican nationals. They send in their checks every year to pay their property taxes. They come down here and bring family members that stay in hotels, eat at our restaurants. They are not coming anymore, because of the rhetoric in Washington, D.C.,” Patel said.
“There is no question that the Peso devaluation and the price of gas, which has gone up 20 percent in Mexico; the security of, say, the person traveling from Monterrey to Reynosa, with the drug cartels and the violence; despite all those things, we still had people coming from Mexico. The first thing we do, when they come to our hotels, is thank them, because they are overcoming all these obstacles. Despite all that they decide to come to the United States and spend their money. I think that is under-appreciated.
“Now, on top of that, the rhetoric in Washington, D.C., right now is, we don’t want you, we don’t want your people. These are people that come to the United States to spend money – despite the fact that their currency has devalued in half, they have a 20 percent increase in gas prices and, they have to fight their way through the drug cartels, to get to the United States and vacation here. I think we should be more appreciative of that.”
Patel said he understands Congress needs to deal with border security. However, he said things should be put in perspective.
“Border security is a small element of the problem. I agree. But it is small overall. The amount of business Texas does with Mexico is huge. It is the third largest trading partner that we, the United States, has in the world, and the biggest trading partner for Texas is Mexico,” Patel said. “We cannot overlook these things, when Washington makes policies that directly affect us negatively.”
Asked for evidence that it is Trump’s rhetoric that is hurting tourism on SPI, Patel said:
“We have companies on South Padre Island that are in the rental business of condos. And the people that live in Mexico that have condos here, they have staff in the United States that maintain these things. They say, ‘we are coming next week, can you stock up the refrigerator with beer, groceries.’ So, I have constant contact with these individuals that own these condos. They tell me that the folks from Mexico are not coming this year because they do not feel welcome. These are people that have the means, they are not struggling in any way financially. They are not coming, for this reason.”
Patel also cited evidence from social media.
“We do a lot of marketing on Facebook, Twitter, etc., in Mexico. We always, in past years, before the rhetoric that started last year, we always had comments that said, ‘I can’t wait to get to the Island. I miss the waters. I miss the warm waters of the Gulf. We are going to get their as fast as we can.’ Today, when you look at all the comments that are coming in from Mexico, which we see on Facebook, it is, ‘oh, we are not coming this year because you guys hate us, we are not coming this year because we feel unwelcome. How about saying thank you for all the years we have been coming?’ These are comments we are seeing constantly. In fact, we are having to take some ads out of Mexico because of the negative comments. Because, as you well know, on social media things permeate throughout the population very quickly. I know you asked the question yesterday, what proof do you have? This is the proof every day, of people commenting on why they are not coming to the United States. They feel insulted.”
Patel said that whatever problems the U.S. has with Mexico should be worked out in a diplomatic way.
“We can always work through our problems with our southern neighbor. But, we have to do it in a way that is respectful. These are proud people. We have differences, of course, but we have to be respectful of their government, of their people, and understand that these individuals have to overcome so many other issues on top of what we are piling up on top of that.”
Asked if he had reached out to political leaders or state tourism officials, Patel said:
“I am a hotel owner, as our president is. He knows what I am talking about. Yes, I have talked to the senator, Senator Cornyn, and I have talked to the congressmen that represent our areas. I have also talked to state legislators on how this affects us in a negative way and that they ought to stop the rhetoric.”
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows the Hilton Garden Inn on South Padre Island. The hotel is owned by South Padre Island Mayor Barry Patel. The Rio Grande Guardian video interview with Patel took place at this hotel.