Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mexico Tries to Lure Back Tourists

Los Angeles Times: Mexican President Felipe Calderon is touting 2011 as the year of tourism, and the Mexico Tourism Board is spending millions of dollars plastering Southland billboards with images of the Great Pyramid of Cholula and underwater trees.

But the nation's deadly drug wars have led the U.S. government to widen its travel warnings in the last few weeks, throwing a wrench into Mexico's effort to attract foreign visitors. Nearly half of all available rooms in 70 major resort centers have been vacant this year, except for the Easter crowd that nearly filled the hotels for a few days, according to the tourism board.

Two days before the holiday, the State Department added four Mexican states to its list of areas to avoid. It now urges U.S. travelers — the bulk of Mexico's tourist economy — to steer clear of all or parts of 10 Mexican states, including most of the border region and popular vacation sites such as Acapulco and Monterrey.

"What's disconcerting is that these advisories are painting an entire country with a broad brush," said Terry Denton, president of the Fort Worth, Texas, branch of the Travel Leaders agency. "It just reinforces the unfortunate impression that all of Mexico is not a safe destination."

Some U.S. travel agents and Mexican officials believe news about the violence has been overblown. "Bad things can happen anywhere," said Rita Wilcox of Rocky Point Reservations travel agency in Phoenix. "But people are afraid, so even those who have the money to go might not. It's affected every business down there tremendously."

Overall, the number of international visitors has fallen 13% to 79.8 million last year from 91.5 million in 2008, according to Banco de Mexico. And the trend isn't looking any better this year: In January, 3.8 million day-trippers crossed the U.S. border into Mexico, down 16% from the same month last year.

With tourism providing Mexico its third largest source of revenue, hotel operators, tour guides and travel agencies now bemoan the U.S. alerts as yet another blow to an industry battered in recent years by a swine flu outbreak, the recession and the increasingly bold cartel activities. It was the violence that prompted the State Department advisory as well as a separate warning from the Texas Department of Public Safety urging spring break vacationers to give Mexico a wide berth.

As lawlessness escalated last year, 111 Americans were killed south of the border, compared with just 35 in 2007, authorities said. Others have been kidnapped from hotels, carjacked at gunpoint and targeted for extortion.

But most areas, tourism officials said, are safe. "This episode of violence has been concentrated in very specific pockets of the country," Lopez-Negrete said. "You're not going to stop going to New York because there's an incident in Dallas."

Salvador Gonzalez, owner of Baja Adventures & ATV Tours in San Diego, has fielded a flurry of questions from concerned American clients. "It's frustrating, since unfortunately only the bad news gets out. But Mexico is so much more than that," said Gonzalez, who leads small groups on weekend tours of sites in northern Baja California.

The State Department advisory pointed out that the violence common in border regions tends to be less pronounced in Mexico's tonier resort areas and tourist destinations.

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