Cabo San Lucas
23 million international visitors came to Mexico last year, on business or for pleasure; with their numbers boosted by a further 6 million docking for day-trips from the cruise ships. The majority were citizens of the USA. In 2010, 10% more Americans entered Mexico than in 2009. President Calderon informed a Las Vegas conference of travel executives that 'almost zero' of these even encountered drug violence.
The reason is clear. They were nowhere near the trouble. Mexico is a huge country, divided into 2,500 counties. Of these, only 80 counties are experiencing the problems that dominate coverage in the newspapers. That's only 4% of the total landmass. The remaining 96% of the country ranges from 'relatively safe' through to 'completely safe' from drug cartel violence.
Tourism Secretary Gloria Guevara was asked, in a recent interview, where is it safe to travel to? She replied, "I would say they can go to all the tourist destinations because all the tourist destinations are fine. It depends on whatever you like, but there are a lot of places you should visit and have a great time. Stay away from a couple of cities within the border." ('Popular destinations safe, says Mexico tourism minister'.)
This is a message that is supported by the USA's federal travel warning. This was last updated on April 22nd, 2011, and reads,
Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day for study, tourism or business and at least one million U.S. citizens who live in Mexico.
The Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations. Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico generally do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border region and in areas along major trafficking routes...
...you are urged to defer non-essential travel to the states of Tamaulipas and Michoacán, and to parts of the states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Sinaloa, Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and Jalisco.
In short, Mexico's northern border with the USA.
This was not the message conveyed by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which issued its own, more extensive warning earlier this year. Spring breakers were told to stay out of Mexico full stop. The penalty for traveling south, the declaration darkly cautioned, would almost certainly be dire. DPS Director Steven C. McCraw was reported widely stating, "Our safety message is simple: avoid traveling to Mexico during Spring Break and stay alive."
He was almost universally ignored. Not only did his predicted bloodbath utterly fail to occur, but the numbers of Spring Breakers reached record proportions in 2010.
Spring Breakers in Cancun
In addition, there has been a steady stream of celebrities crossing the border, for work, pleasure and, in some cases, matrimony, throughout the year. By their very nature, these are the pampered and protected products of film and TV studios or record labels, who would soon be forbidding any destination which might threaten their star.
Yet just today, American journalists were writing, 'Now that Mexico's tourist industry is pulling out of a long, well-publicized slump... we can't help noticing that the uptick parallels an accelerating stream of celebrities visiting the country.' ('Stars head to Mexico for work and pleasure.')
American actors Soleil Moon Frye, Eric Dane, Rebecca Gayheart and their children, on a Memorial Day vacation, in the Four Seasons Resort, Punta de Mita, Mexico
Terry Denton, president of the Travel Leaders/Main Street Place Travel in Fort Worth, explained that, "In the past, people in Texas have rolled things like this off their back because they were savvy with Mexico travel." Though he did report a substantial increase in concerned people visiting his office with their questions, after the DPS warning was issued. "In many cases, we could alleviate any fears and concerns they had by sharing our knowledge of statistics and geography."
However, American travel agencies remained unimpressed with the scaremongering, which could well have hit them right in the pocket. Adventure Travel Trade Association president, Shannon Stowell, was blunt in her response to the issue. "If you look at federal travel warnings, they are very editorial free, just reportage on the facts. But the one that came out of Texas had what I would call an inflammatory message. It was an unfair blanket statement. It's a damage to our membership." ('Tourism groups ask Texas DPS to refine its warnings about Mexico'.)
No-one in government, nor the American tourist agencies, are denying that there are severe troubles in certain parts of the country. Javier Sicilia's peace caravan, which has weaved its route throughout Mexico and is currently at the US border, is just one testimony to that.
Javier Sicilia at the head of the Peace Caravan
President Calderon is the first to admit it. "Yes we have problems... We are dealing with that, we are facing it." He stated, at the Las Vegas conference, but he also commented, "Mexico is a safe place to visit." Because once the hotspot 4% of the country is avoided, then it is.
Tourism Secretary Gloria Guevara also recognized past marketing errors. "We left a gap of lack of information. That gap was filled up with bad news and that happened for a couple years. We realized that was a mistake and we’re fixing it. Yes, we have some challenges but, I haven’t met a country that doesn’t have challenges."
In the meantime, 2011 has been declared the Year of Tourism by Mexico's government; and that tourism is going from strength to strength.