Mexico tourism takes hit
Mexico tourism takes hit
Dallas Morning News |
Violence, political upheaval keeping some U.S. travelers away
12:03 AM CST on Tuesday, October 31, 2006
By LAURENCE ILIFF / The Dallas Morning News
ACAPULCO, Mexico – Fear of terrorism far from home has caused record numbers of Americans to visit peaceful, nearby Mexico since the 9/11 attacks, but now drug-related violence and political upheaval are pushing them back, officials and analysts say.
The number of foreign tourists visiting Mexico – the vast majority of them Americans – has fallen by 4 percent this year, and several parts of the country have become subject to U.S. travel advisories similar to those issued for the violence-troubled U.S.-Mexico border.
Mexico is the top foreign tourist destination for Texans. American Airlines has a direct Dallas-Acapulco flight during the winter tourist season, and one North Texas travel agent said about half the ocean cruises he sells pass through Mexican ports.
But a generalized feeling of insecurity and government inaction in Mexico is reverberating across the U.S. border and threatens more than the tourism industry if left unchecked, analysts said.
Tourism trouble spots: 'What we're witnessing in Mexico is a social breakdown that carries ramifications for all sectors of society,' said Ana María Salazar, political commentator in Mexico City and former Pentagon official. 'People just don't feel safe anymore.'
On Monday, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza elevated a travel warning for Oaxaca City, a center of cultural tourism, after the killing of an American on Friday and the intervention Sunday of federal police to end a five-month protest by teachers and leftist groups.
"U.S. citizens should avoid any travel to Oaxaca City, and if they must travel there, they should exercise extreme caution throughout the state of Oaxaca until the government of Mexico restores order to the area," Mr. Garza said in a prepared statement.
The slain American was cameraman Bradley Roland Will, 36, of the media organization Indynews. He was shot to death with two Mexicans. Protesters blamed police for shootings against them in recent months that have killed at least 12 people.
While top tourist destinations for North Texans such as Cancun and the Mayan Riviera have been hit harder by hurricanes than by crime, other popular tourist areas are raising reds flags at home and abroad.
• Assassinations by drug-trafficking groups in and around Acapulco have become an almost daily occurrence, and severed heads have been left in tourist areas. Police have been attacked with grenades in Acapulco and another Guerrero state resort, Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo.
"With soldiers with machine guns patrolling the beaches, you can become a little nervous as a tourist," said political commentator Homero Aridjis.
If they persist, the violent images of Mexico can destroy local tourism economies, as they have in Oaxaca, Mr. Aridjis said.
• The central state of Michoacán, which will host touristy Day of the Dead celebrations this week, has become the latest narco killing field. Five severed heads were recently thrown on the dance floor of a popular disco in the town of Uruapan, part of the tourist corridor that includes Pátzcuaro and Morelia.
• Mexico City is just starting to recover from a political protest over the July 2 presidential election that lasted into mid-September and slashed foreign tourism. But another protest by losing presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador is planned for Nov. 20.
Mexican officials acknowledge that President-elect Felipe Calderón must act quickly after taking office Dec. 1 to lure Americans back. He must also provide more jobs to keep people from crossing illegally into the U.S.
"The president-elect just told a meeting of businessmen that the most important thing for generating tourism in this country – and growth and development and jobs – is security," Tourism Minister Rodolfo Elizondo said. "I would be the happiest man on Earth if Mexico could offer security in each and every place where we have tourism potential."
At the same time, Mr. Elizondo said that all nations – the U.S. included – have violence that can affect visitors. While increasing violence tarnishes Mexico's image abroad, the vast majority of the nation remains remarkably safe, he said.
"This is not an issue of generalized insecurity because [the narcos] don't even go after the local population," Mr. Elizondo said. "But no one wants to be in the middle of a shootout, right?"
Mr. Elizondo said security concerns, including drug-related killings and political upheaval, are to blame for half of the drop in foreign tourism from January to August, compared with the same period in 2005.
More than 22 million foreigners visited Mexico in 2005 and spent $12 billion.
Foreign tourism is down by about 350,000 people so far this year, meaning about 175,000 stayed away because of insecurity, according to his calculation. Other factors that hurt the industry were bad weather and Cancun's ongoing recovery from Hurricane Wilma last year, Mr. Elizondo said.
North Texans react
John Krieger, president of the Dallas-based travel agency Cruise and Tour Center, said locals are cutting their travel to Mexico, especially cruises. But, he said, it's more about high energy prices, concern about the housing market and other economic issues than safety fears.
"The two things that motivate American travelers are personal safety and cleanliness," Mr. Krieger said. "I have heard no instance in which people don't feel safe" going to Mexico.
First-time travelers might be more likely to be scared off, he said. "It's easier for them to say 'no.' They just tend to be more fragile."
The U.S. State Department's "public announcement" on the state of security in Mexico says: "Public sources suggest that narcotics-related violence has claimed 1,500 lives in Mexico this year. In recent months there have been execution-style murders of Mexican and U.S. citizens in Tamaulipas (particularly Nuevo Laredo), Michoacán, Baja California, Guerrero, and other states."
Some tourism officials say that the fear is exaggerated.
"These are isolated incidents, lamentable, but they are not affecting tourism," said Elvia Zavala Jiménez, Acapulco's tourism director. Ms. Zavala said that she has asked travel agents in the U.S. whether they worry about security in Acapulco and that they have said no.
For example, cruise ship passengers, she said, "feel just as safe [on the streets of Acapulco] as they do on the cruise ships."
The 15 percent drop this year in international tourism to the beach resort, she said, is because of bad weather and the loss of cruise traffic.
Mr. Zavala said she has negotiated deals that will bring more cruise ships carrying Americans, more flights from the East Coast and more spring breakers in coming months.
But Mr. Aridjis, the political commentator, said Mexico needs to come to terms with its lack of security, not deny it, and he thinks Mr. Calderón is just the man to do so.
"Not only are the tourists scared, the Mexican people are scared," he said.
"Calderón is going to be like the captain of a ship that has gone adrift and needs to be put back on course," Mr. Aridjis said. "He has the character, determination and intelligence to do that."