Spring break reservations for Mexico from U.S. college students remain steady, travel industry experts say, despite near-daily reports of drug violence there. Cheap prices in Mexico, a slowly strengthening economy here, the relative safety of many tourist resorts and the fact that the 2009 swine flu pandemic is now all but forgotten are all factors in Mexico's resilience as a spring break destination.
That's particularly true of Cancun — Mexico's top beach destination, said Patrick Evans of STA Travel, one of the biggest spring break travel agencies.
"Cancun has always been the most popular among students, and it's still tremendously safe, as long as someone is staying in the resort areas," he said.
Tens of thousands of high school- and college-age Americans travel to Mexican resort areas during spring break each year.
This year, reservations for Mexico from students at Oberlin, Baldwin-Wallace and other colleges have been coming in strong for months, said Kim Gray, a travel agent in North Olmsted, Ohio, with Travel Leaders, one of the top 10 travel agencies in the U.S.
They're heading to Cancun, Playa del Carmen and other destinations on the Riviera Maya, she said.
"Some of them want to get away from the big crowds of Cancun and spend time in a small town where there's still beautiful beaches," she said.
Far from the border
The area is far from the U.S. border, where most of the drug violence has taken place, and where the U.S. State Department recently warned students not to travel, said Alfonso Sumano, director of the Americas for the Mexico Tourism Board.
Also, drug-related violence involving American tourists at beaches and other Mexican tourist destinations is extremely rare, he said.
Still, Gray said she saw many more guards with machine guns on the streets and beaches during her own trip to the Riviera Maya in November.
That didn't worry the group of nurses she was traveling with, and it probably won't faze most students, she said.
"When you're 20 years old, you think you're invincible," Gray said.
Cabo San Lucas, also a good distance from the border at the lower tip of Baja California, is where Caitlin Cronin, a junior at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., and her friends are heading this year.
"I'm not necessarily worried," she said. "And I don't know if that's because I'm naive, or because I just haven't been there in a while."
However, Acapulco has taken a huge hit in travel reservations due to drug violence, said Jason Chute, the director of operations for StudentCity.com.
The Pacific coast city, one of Mexico's oldest resort cities and a traditional spring break destination with vibrant nightlife, has seen beheadings and massacres as traffickers fight over turf.
The State Department noted that Acapulco's violence hasn't been directed at tourists. However, hotel owners and U.S. travel agents say reservations have dropped sharply.
Fun in the sun
While the slow U.S. economy was the main factor in drawing some students away from traveling to Mexico last year, near-daily reports of drug violence have hurt some this year, Chute said. As an alternative, some students are seeking package deals for Punta Cana, a beach resort in the Dominican Republic, he said.
The September attack on American tourist David Hartley and his wife on Falcon Lake, on the Texas-Mexico border, has been particularly damaging to travelers' perception of Mexico, Chute said. Tiffany Hartley said she and her husband were jet skiing in Mexican waters when pirates fired on them, striking her husband and forcing her to flee. His body hasn't been recovered.
"That was on 'Good Morning America' for a month straight," Chute said. "Stuff like that affects where people are going to go, even though in the tourist zones, we're not seeing that kind of activity."
Tom Black, a freshman at Arizona State, said he wouldn't even consider traveling to Mexico. The 18-year-old instead is heading to Pennsylvania to visit family.
"All the stuff you hear about, the violence," he said. "Especially since it could be aimed at Americans and at kids. I think we could be targets."
Despite that perception, Mexico's Ministry of Tourism said the number of foreign visitors in 2010 exceeded the approximately 22 million travelers who arrived in 2008 — before the outbreak of swine flu in April 2009 left resorts empty for much of the rest of the year.
The U.S. Commerce Department said visits to Mexico by U.S. residents rose 8 percent during the first six months of 2010 — a period that includes spring break months — compared to the same time period in 2009.
Much of that has been attributable to the favorable exchange rate and cheaper package deals at Mexican resorts, Travel Leaders spokeswoman Kathy Gerhardt said.
Most U.S. travelers understand that the violence is confined to specific areas, she said. And a lot of college students, with their fixed income, are attracted to the all-encompassing deals at resorts.
"It boils down to value overall," Gerhardt said. "People, particularly with the winter we've been having, they're looking for sun and fun and value."