Mexico's president becomes TV adventure guide

August 19, 2011 - 11:30 PM

MEXICO CITY (AP) — President Felipe Calderon is figuratively going out on a limb — and literally down a sinkhole, up a river (with a paddle) and over the top of a few pyramids — in an attempt to boost Mexico's flagging tourism industry.

The balding, 49-year-old leader is personally trying to change his country's violent reputation by appearing as a sort of adventure tour guide in a series of TV programs to be broadcast starting in September on Public Broadcasting Service stations in the United States.

The president dons an Indiana Jones-style hat and a harness and descends a rope into the 1,000-foot-deep (375-meter) Sotano de las Golondrinas cavern, accompanied by Peter Greenberg, host of the "The Royal Tour" TV series. Calderon also straps on scuba tanks to lead Greenberg into a sinkhole lake known as a cenote in Yucatan. And he helps a Lacandon Indian paddle a boat down a river in a jungle in southern Chiapas state.

In the 30-minute videos, Calderon breaks from his image as a lawyerly policy wonk best known for launching a bloody, controversial offensive against drug cartels. He plans to attend a premiere of the show within a few weeks, according to Tourism Department spokesman Roberto Martinez.

"I have other duties that are more dangerous," Calderon jokes, dangling midair in a cavern as a rope lowers him hundreds of feet to the bottom. The site is in the Gulf coast region of Mexico known as the Huasteca, which is covered in jungle and dotted with caverns, waterfalls and crystalline pools.

Calderon swaps the explorer hat for a helmet with a headlamp for the descent into the Golondrinas cave, named for the huge flocks of birds that live inside. Calderon also appears in underwater footage from the stalactite-studded cenote in Yucatan, where he flashes the camera an "OK" signal from behind his dive mask.

Analysts say the videos represent a distinct break from the solemn treatment that has long characterized the Mexican presidency but fit in with Calderon, who has emphasized using the media to get his message across, and who has sought to project a forceful image.

"That's always been his objective, the whole macho thing," said John Ackerman, of the legal research institute at Mexico's National Autonomous University. In 2007, soon after putting the army on the front line of his offensive against drug cartels, Calderon departed from presidential tradition by putting on an olive-green army jacket that was a few sizes too big for his short frame, an image that has been widely lampooned in newspaper cartoons ever since.

"From the very beginning, using the military uniforms and saluting, it's always been his kind of thing," Ackerman said. "It doesn't quite fit with his physical appearance."

Drawing criticism, Calderon's administration took the image-building a step further this year by funding a privately produced television miniseries glorifying the federal police, which was broadcast by the country's largest network. On Friday, the navy told local news media that it is letting private producers use navy locations to make a miniseries about the force, but that the navy is not financing any of the production.

Calderon's message in the latest videos is that Mexico is safe for tourists.

"This is part of a strategy to promote the country abroad," said Martinez.

Nobody argues that Mexico's tourism needs a boost. According to the country's central bank, overall foreign tourism in 2010, not including border-area visitors, was still 6.3 percent below 2008 levels, and the first half of 2011 saw a 2 percent decline from the same period of 2010.

Cruise ship visits in the first half of the year declined 9.3 percent, after several cruise lines canceled Pacific port calls in Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta.

Analysts blame the drops on the world economic downturn hitting many countries' travel industries, but also pointed to Mexico's drug violence, which has claimed between 35,000 and 40,000 lives since Calderon took office in late 2006.

While foreign tourists have not been targets of the violence, a point Calderon is eager to make, it has had some undeniable effects. For example, the border highway that many U.S. visitors once used to travel to the Huasteca region where Calderon went cave-diving is now considered so plagued by highway holdups and shootings that the U.S. State Department has issued warnings about traveling there.

The Huasteca remains a beautiful and largely safe region, but most tour operators recommend foreigners fly to a nearby Mexican airport rather than drive down from the border.

Some argue that Calderon's stint as a television travel guide might be ill-advised, both because it compromises the dignity of the presidency and comes just months before campaigning opens for the 2012 elections to choose his successor.

Mario di Costanzo, a congressman for the leftist Labor Party, says he has requested information on how much Mexico spent to film the series. Calderon's office said the videos' U.S. producers paid production costs on the trips, but Mexican presidential and military helicopters can be seen ferrying the 'presidential tourists' around.

"We are questioning the legality of the president's actions," Di Costanzo said. "Never in the history of the country has the image of the president been used to promote tourism."

"We see this as a promotion of Felipe Calderon's own image, for the benefit of his own party, rather than an institutional image of the country as a tourism destination," Di Costanzo noted.

Greenberg has previously traveled with the king of Jordan, the president of Peru, and the prime ministers of New Zealand and Jamaica on similar programs.

Congresswoman Leticia Quezada of the Democratic Revolution Party said her party objects to Calderon using government vehicles and personnel for the series, and said he has been spending too much time and money on television.

"We're going to start calling him Felipe Calderon Productions," she quipped.

(This version CORRECTS reference to show's premiere)