Ask RedWeek / July, 2014

Is it safe to travel to Mexico?

We've read many things about problems in Mexico, including danger to tourists. What is going on there now -- is it safe to travel to places like Cabo San Lucas and Cancun?

Traveling to Mexico is probably not as safe as going to a place like Hawaii, Sedona, or Florida, but it's less expensive and very comfortable in the prime vacation spots. As long as you pay attention to travel advisories from the United States State Department and only visit major destination areas, you'll probably have a great vacation.

Mexico's tourism industry is growing again, after several years of widespread misery blamed on the worldwide recession and, worse, global media coverage of drug cartels killing people, police and, sadly, tourists in Mexico. It's a tough story that, finally, may have a better ending ahead.

The US State Department issued its original Travel Warning in July 2013, and then updated it in January 2014 (read the current advisory here). The State Department travel advisory paints a blistering picture of unease in Mexico, especially along the northern border, which is about as old Wild West as you can imagine, but with machine guns replacing six-shooters.

Eighty-one US citizens were murdered in Mexico in 2013; up from 71 in 2012. Kidnappings increased 32 percent in 2013, with 90 kidnappings of US citizens occurring between April and November of 2013. Most of the criminal activity occurred along the northern border. For example, there were 458 homicides in Tijuana between October 2012 and September 2013, up from 324 the year before.

At the same time, the State Department issued no travel warnings about destinations in Cabo San Lucas and Cancun, Mexico's most popular tourist destinations.

Unfortunately for Mexico, tourism and crime are related. When crime stories go up, tourism goes down, especially from North America. A whopping 85-90 percent of all Mexican tourists come from the United States and Canada. Because of its proximity and variety, Mexico is the #1 tourist destination for Americans, with 20 million US citizens making the trek south every year. Understandably, those numbers dipped in recent years due to the global recession, news about the cartel assassinations, and general instability along the US-Mexico border. But now the pendulum is turning. American tourists, and their dollars, are cautiously returning to their favorite seaside resorts in Mexico.

All of the travel indicators --- flights, visitors, revenues and, most importantly, timeshare sales --- are heading north once again. Best of all, the scary stories about crime and kidnappings in Mexico appear to be declining.

Here's a recent snapshot: On a sweltering summer day in Cabo San Lucas, the champagne corks popped off like Old Faithful. Every ten minutes or so, another cork went flying skyward, sparking a spontaneous eruption of applause from the mostly middle-aged couples crammed into the presentation room at the Hacienda del Mar Vacation Club. Glasses filled and drained while the kids played happily by the pool. Smiles abounded, guests to sales reps. The timeshares seemed to be selling as fast as the champagne was flowing.

Fifty yards away from the timeshare presentation room, at the convention center for the adjacent Sheraton Hacienda del Mar Golf and Spa Resort, a procession of government officials and timeshare resort developers gathered for a two-day networking conference to assess the state of Mexico's tourism industry. They didn't pop many champagne corks, but guaranteed each other that better days are coming. They also pledged to work together, harder than in the past, to eradicate bureaucratic policies that have limited expansion of resorts, airports, roads, and infrastructure in places such as Cabo San Lucas. (Example: state taxes and resort fees hike every hotel bill by 23 to 29 percent, which supposedly goes to support tourism.)

The tourism-and-travel executives had one unified message, as well, and it sounded like a plea aimed directly at the US government: "Stop issuing untrue travel warnings that hurt our business. We can't live without American tourists."

The participants were members of AMDETUR, the Mexican Resort Development Association, which represents 90 percent of Mexico's resort travel businesses. Many of these members sell timeshare products. The most recent tourism numbers give AMDETUR's membership lots of room to hope that a recovering economy --- led by timeshare sales --- is happening.

Tourism represents 8.4 percent of Mexico's economy and creates 2.5 million jobs. The global economic recession hit Mexico's tourism industry right in the gut. During the recession's nadir in 2010, Mexico welcomed 1.3 million air travelers as timeshare sales dropped 40 percent. The average hotel rate was $221 per night in an industry where the occupancy rate was 66 percent. The decline in timeshare sales led to an increase in bookings for all-inclusive, meals-included resorts as travelers got more cost-conscious.

In 2013, after years of withering news reports about the dangers of traveling to Mexico, air travel bounced back to 1.7 million. Timeshare sales reached $3 billion in 2013, led by a 40 percent surge in sales in Cabo San Lucas. Now, in 2014, the timeshare industry is growing three times faster than Mexico's overall economy. Globally, timeshare sales are up 8 percent.

On more than one occasion, the tourism and hospitality executives gave these numbers a standing ovation --- as if they've been starving for good news about their industry.

Mexico Fights Back Against US Travel Warnings

Those executives have weathered four tough years of adverse publicity, none of it of their own making. Why? Because it's tough to promote tourism while your national government is fighting terrorists and drug cartels that seem to randomly assassinate people, including tourists.

At the AMDETUR convention, a new group emerged to take on the challenge of combatting the negatives about travel in Mexico.

MexicoTruth.com, as its name suggests, is an organization "dedicated to correcting the media dramatization regarding safe travel to Mexico and correcting the inappropriateness of the US Travel Warning against Mexico." Backed by government agencies and the tourism industry, focusing squarely on Americans, the group's Web site assures people that fears about violence are overblown. It asserts that travelers "are 17 times more likely to get struck by lightning and 15 times more likely to win an Academy Award" than to encounter a negative experience while vacationing in Mexico. It also says that Washington DC and New Orleans are more dangerous than any place in Mexico. The site even posts a very friendly video from First Lady Michelle Obama who, on a recent trip to Mexico City, offered the following plug: "I encourage people to be aware and smart when they travel. Mexico City is a wonderful place to visit."

MexicoTruth.com flyers were distributed throughout the AMDETUR convention. Their organizers want the US to retract and tone down the "fear factor" in travel warnings so Americans will be able to book their next trip to Mexico with confidence that they'll have a safe and secure family vacation. The only certainty about this campaign, backed by the First Lady, is that Mexico's more unified than ever in trying to turn trepidation into travelers. Time will tell.

About the author

This answer was provided by RedWeek's Chief Correspondent, Jeff Weir. Jeff is a California-based journalist who has covered California, Congress, and the White House. He also has roots in Silicon Valley, where he directed public relations and marketing programs for high-tech companies. He is also a timeshare owner and member of RedWeek.com.

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