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Mexico's drug war doesn't stop tourists

Despite Mexico's recent headline-inducing drug crime and threats to its vital tourist industry due to the global economic downturn, American visitors continue to head south of the border.
Image: Tourists in Mexico
People gather in Mexico City's Zocalo Square on Wednesday as the nation marks the 200th anniversary of the day rebel priest Manuel Hidalgo set it on a path to independence from Spain.Luis Acosta / Reuters
/ Source: contributor

Mexican president Felipe Calderon has more to celebrate this week than the 200th anniversary of the country’s independence from Spain: Despite recent headline-inducing drug crime and threats to its vital tourist industry due to the global economic downturn, American visitors continue to head south of the border.

“It’s no secret there has been the perception of security issues,” said Chris Calabrese, vice president and managing director of the J.W. Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa and CasaMagna Cancun Marriott Resort. “But crime is mostly a border issue. Cancun is 1,100 miles from Juarez, where most of the incidents have taken place. There’s some confusion about the geography of the country. But I’m here with my family. If I thought they might not be safe, I would pack my bags and leave.”

Much of the crime in Mexico is related to drug-trafficking, the majority committed in areas that are not traditional tourist destinations, said Hugo Rodriguez, the Western Hemisphere Affairs division chief in the Bureau of Consular Affairs of the U.S. Department of State.

On Aug. 31, an attack on a bar frequented by locals in Cancun outside the main tourist area left eight dead. Authorities suspect the violence is linked to an extortion attempt by a local drug cartel known to operate in the area, although the resort town has largely avoided the nation's drug violence.

Since 2006, more than 28,000 people have been killed in Mexico since President Calderon launched a military offensive against drug cartels. The violence prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a travel warning concerning the violence in Mexico, but it also notes that “millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year.”

“The Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations,” the warning states. “Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border region and in areas along major drug trafficking routes. Nevertheless, crime and violence are serious problems."  

Rodriguez advises travelers to exercise caution particularly in destinations on or near the U.S. border, like Tijuana and the Copper Canyon. He also suggests travelers stay in areas clearly for tourists; do not draw attention to themselves by flashing large amounts of cash or jewelry; travel by car during daylight hours and stick to major roads; and leave a copy of their itinerary with friends or family at home. Most importantly, he recommends they register with the American embassy or consulate in Mexico before they leave the U.S., so the State Department can assist them if there is an emergency.

Vital tourist industry
So far, the drug violence does  not appear to be putting a dent in Mexico's tourist industry.

“I live in New York City,” said Shari Prince, the owner of a residential real estate company in Manhattan who returned last month from what she called a “fantastic” five-day getaway with her three daughters on the Riviera Maya, which is just southwest of Cancun. “I’d be more concerned about the crime here than in Mexico.”

Tourism is one of  Mexico's most important industries, generating 9 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product.

In 2008, the country had 22.6 million visitors who spent $13.2 billion, according to the Mexico Tourist Board. In 2009, the number of total visitors declined slightly to 21.4 million, but spending dropped by $2 billion to $11.2 billion. Americans comprise the largest group of Mexico’s international tourists — about 80 percent.

Alfonso Sumano, regional director of the Americas for the tourist board, said Mexico expects to see the number of visitors and their expenditures return to 2008 levels this year. Tourists have already spent $6.49 billion in just the first six months of 2010, he said.

Mexico's bicentennial, perhaps, is one day the nation would like its citizens — and the world — to forget about its drug war and focus on the country's history, music and folk art.

All that was on display this week in Mexico City, with a $40 million fiesta, two years in the making. On Wednesday night, President Calderon capped the evening by ringing the historic liberty bell once rung by Miguel Hidalgo, a parish priest and hero in the country’s 1810 uprising that resulted in independence from Spain, followed by a fireworks. The celebrations were expected to continue Thursday with a military parade through the capitial.

To mark the bicentennial, the Mexico Tourist Board created eight special routes that pass through 100 destinations in 17 states. Four commemorate the independence bicentennial and four celebrate the centennial of the start of the later Mexican revolution that overthrew the dictator Porfirio Diaz. One of the former visits Dolores Hidalgo, Miguel Hidalgo’s hometown, where he delivered his famous call to arms, the “Grito de Dolores,” or “Shout of Dolores.”

The allure of Mexico
Few Americans were expected to participate in Mexico's Independence Day festivities, but the allure of Mexico's beaches and resorts continues to attract throngs of American tourists. Some travel providers have reported an increase in bookings in 2010.

Charles White, a travel agent at an American Express Travel Service office in McLean, Va., said that in 2008, fully one-third of his business came from Americans traveling to Mexico. His business declined in 2009, largely due to the downturn in the U.S. economy. “The economy was the driving factor; most people did not travel. And there was the swine flu,” he explained.

Today one-third of his business is again generated by Mexican-bound vacationers, who he said are attracted by the country’s family travel destinations, such as the Riviera Maya and Puerto Vallarta; new and newly renovated resort hotels in, respectively, the Riviera Maya and Cancun; and “an abundance” of nonstop flights.

Mitchell Rechler, a commercial real estate developer in Melville, N.Y., stayed at the posh One & Only Palmilla resort in Cabo San Lucas in December 2008 with his wife and two children. He rented a six-bedroom villa in Cabo, with 13 relatives and friends, during the 2009 holiday season, and will rent it again in December 2010.

“I think Cabo is a beautiful area. It offers a lot of different things, good food, surfing, golf, beautiful views. And the service in Cabo — at Palmilla and in the villa — is as good as any places I’ve traveled in the world,” he said.

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.