MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico hopes the visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to this country's most emblematic Mayan ruins Thursday will spark a mass influx of tourists from China, the world's largest tourism spender.
But officials and industry insiders said it's still a long way before Mexico can capitalize on the opportunity.
Xi and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto toured the archaeological site of Chichen Itza in Yucatan and spoke about expanding their commercial ties.
The Chinese leader said he trusts that some of the 400 million Chinese tourists who will travel abroad in the next five years will find Mexico's ancient ruins and resort cities alluring.
Xi's three-day stay in Mexico has been used to pump for an increase in Chinese visitors. On Tuesday, Mexico boasted of a 35 percent increase in Chinese tourists in the first four months of the year. On Thursday, the Tourism Department said it wants to increase flights from China and put up more Mandarin signs in key areas, hoping to make China the No. 1 source of Asian travelers to Mexico.
Tourism is one of Mexico's biggest industries, last year drawing 23 million foreign tourists who spent about $12.7 billion.
However, travel insiders and government officials said Mexico is not close to exploiting China's fast rise as a source of tourists. The World Tourism Organization says China is the largest supplier of tourists around the world, its travelers spending a total of $102 billion in 2012. Other countries have expanded their consular offices and flights to welcome Chinese visitors, but not Mexico.
Just under 50,000 Chinese visited Mexico last year. Ten times that number of U.S. citizens visit Mexico each month.
Jorge Guajardo, who left his post as Mexican ambassador to China on Sunday, said Mexico doesn't have the facilities or staff in China to issue the increasing number of visas needed to boost tourism.
"What you have to do is to make the process quick. That's what countries that have been successful in attracting Chinese tourists have done. Mexico doesn't have it yet," he said.
Guajardo said Mexico's consular office in Beijing potentially serves up to 400 million people, but it has only two people issuing visas.
"If we want to capitalize on this opportunity, we have to expand our consular sections," he said.
He also said more flights are needed to connect the two countries. Right now, Chinese travelers can only fly from Shanghai to Mexico City on Thursdays and Sundays.
Jorge Hernandez, president of Mexico's association of tourism and travel agents, said there is a dire need for Mexican tour guides who speak Mandarin and for Chinese signs in airports, hotels and restaurants.
"They are very devoted to their traditions, their language," he said. "Whoever is not working on making these tourists feel welcome won't enjoy the benefits."
Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson contributed to this report.