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A public-private partnership created six years ago to boost U.S. tourism has a message for Mexicans: We welcome you, even if it may seem like President Donald Trump doesn't.

After a drop in travel since Trump took office in January, Brand USA is launching a digital marketing campaign in Mexico this month with the slogan "Planifica tu viaje a USA ahora" -- Plan your trip to the U.S. now.

The goal is to convince Mexicans that Trump's vow to build a wall along the southern border, ban travelers from some countries and tighten visa screenings shouldn't keep them from packing a suitcase and heading north.

"Nothing has changed about how our friends and visitors from Mexico plan their trip to the U.S. and how they enter the country," said Chris Thompson, chief executive officer of the Washington-based group. "We're really working on separating the perception versus the reality. There's been a lot of conversation, but nothing legally has changed."

The reason behind the push is simple: Mexicans are the second-largest group of visitors to the U.S. after Canadians, and in 2015 alone they spent almost $20 billion. But the task isn't easy. Anti-Trump sentiment and a weaker peso have already affected travel to the U.S. Air traffic from Mexico to U.S. leisure destinations dropped for the first two months of the year, according to Mexico's Communications and Transportation Ministry.

It's not that Mexicans aren't traveling; they may be headed to Canada instead. Airports in Miami, Orlando, San Antonio and Denver clocked fewer visitors from Mexico City and Guadalajara in the first two months of 2017, while Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver saw a surge in traffic from Mexico's capital.

Brand USA's public money comes from $10 out of every $14 that travelers under the U.S. Visa Waiver Program pay to register every two years. That money is set aside in a tourism trust fund, Thompson said, of which the organization takes $100 million each year and matches it with private funds from its partners.

"The federal government provides the seed money but requires us to make sure that we match every federal dollar with a private dollar," Thompson said. This fiscal year, the budget stands at $165 million, which will be deployed in similar campaigns in 40 different markets, he said.

Some of Brand USA's board members include Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson; Kyle Edmiston, Louisiana's tourism director; and Rossi Ralenkotter, president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Board members are appointed by the U.S. secretary of commerce in consultation with the secretary of state and the secretary of homeland security, according to the organization's website.

The Brand USA marketing campaign could be welcome news for Mexican airlines, which had a tough first quarter. Grupo Aeromexico SAB posted a net loss and retired additional aircraft, and Controladora Vuela Cia. de Aviacion, or Volaris, missed estimates.

"Regarding uncertainty in immigration policy in the U.S., we saw some softness," said Andres Conesa, CEO of Aeromexico, in an April 26 investor call. The quarter "was very challenging for the Mexican aviation industry."

Volaris also saw its first-quarter results slide, which the company attributed in part to "the U.S. discussions on travel bans, talks about stricter passenger-screening methods" as well as "visa and migratory-status debates," CEO Enrique Beltranena said in a call with investors.

"Mexico is a hugely important market to the U.S.," Thompson said. "Nothing about what makes the U.S. a compelling place to visit has changed."

SundayMonday Business on 05/14/2017

Print Headline: U.S.-backed ads woo, soothe Mexican tourists

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