Students on spring break cheer at the beach in the resort city of Cancun, Mexico.
Mexico's drug war has claimed more than 34,000 lives in the past four years. Despite the increasingly bleak headlines that often mention shootouts, beheading and mass graves, Americans have continued to visit the troubled country -- until now.
The Wall Street Journal wrote that several tour operators and hotel chains have seen a decline in the number of Americans visiting Mexico. Travel Impressions, tour operator for American Express, told the paper that it sent 100,000 passengers to Mexico in 2010, but has seen its bookings for non-group travelers drop by 15 percent. Smith Travel Research, a firm that monitors hotel occupancy rates, says that stays in Mexico's mid-range chains are either flat or decreasing. Even the cruise industry has been affected: Disney Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Cruises all canceled their service to Acapulco after two recent violent incidents involving foreigners.
In March, Texas state officials warned college students about traveling to the increasingly violent hotspots of Cancun and Acapulco, a move that frustrated tourism officials in Mexico. Rodolfo Lopez Negrete, the chief operating officer of Mexico's Board of Tourism, told Reuters on Wednesday that the warnings were "ludicrous" and "misinformed." Lopez Negrete was in Austin to meet with Texas state officials in an effort to convince them that it's safe to travel to many parts of Mexico.
The Texas warning read, "Our safety message is simple: avoid traveling to Mexico during Spring Break and stay alive."
In 2010, 107 Americans were murdered in Mexico, according to the Wall Street Journal. The U.S. State Department doesn't specify how many of those victims were tourists, but the number is double what it was before the drug war began.
In an interview with msnbc.com, Pablo Weisz, a security manager for the Americas for International SOS, said Mexico's worsening security situation has led the crisis and risk management company to deem parts of the country more dangerous. Mexico has long been rated by the company as a medium security risk -- by comparison, Norway's rating is insignificant and Iraq's is extreme. Recently, International SOS announced that the northern border states of Baja, Sonora, Chihuahua, and Guerrero are now high risk due to cartel violence.
In these states, Weisz might advise corporate clients and individual travelers to use secure transportation, travel only during daylight, never stop on the road and move in convoys. "If we’re to talk about Mexico in general," Weisz said, "the risks to travelers have not changed that much." Of the 107 American deaths, Weisz said he believes many of them were Mexican-Americans involved in the drug trade.
Even the safer parts of Mexico, however, can be dangerous for tourists. Mexico City, for example, is known for "express kidnappings," in which a thief poses as a legitimate taxi driver and proceeds to force the passenger to withdraw money from several ATMs, often at gunpoint. Petty and street crime can also be common.
Weisz recommends that tourists report their trip to the U.S. embassy in case of an emergency. He also says those traveling in the less dangerous areas of Mexico should try to schedule their flights so they arrive and depart during the day; take taxis only at official hotel or airport stands; go out in groups, avoid drinking excessively and drink only from beverages that must be opened in front of you; and never share too much information with strangers lest you tip off a potential thief to your whereabouts during your stay. If these guidelines seem disconcerting, Weisz said they're the same ones he suggests for traveling in more secure cities like Paris and Rome.
That may be, but Mexico ranks second only to India in the number of annual inquiries that International SOS clients and members make about security risks abroad.
"There's interest for a number of reasons," Weisz said. "If you're going to Afghanistan, you know it’s going to be a bad place. Whereas if you’re going to Mexico, there’s the importance of nuance and going past what the headlines are saying. It’s a huge country with very different security environments."
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