Mexico’s War On Drugs Not Deterring Tourists

Mexico may be associated for many international travelers with drug violence as a result of ghoulish media coverage in their home countries but it is not deterring them from visiting the country’s tourist resorts.

Mexican hoteliers, tour operators and government officials are predicting that 2012 is going to be a record year for tourism — that is if Spring Break is any guide.

Young Americans who flocked to Cancún say they heard before traveling to Mexico about cartel slayings and even read about beheadings and a casino fire in Monterrey but the spring breakers say the sun, the lapping waves of the Caribbean or Pacific and tequila beckoned.

“I did consider the security risks beforehand,” says Madison Reiter, an Occupational Therapy student from Cumberland, Maryland, “but I was more concerned about having an amazing spring break with my friends and getting out of Maryland for a week.”

The 20-year-old adds that good security at the resort where she stayed was appreciated. “I was not nervous about the security risks. I felt very safe and secure. There were lots of Americans staying at our resort and all around us. The locals were very friendly and the resort workers took very good care of us.”

That is music to the ears of Mexico’s tourist chiefs, who have high hopes that this year will be even better than 2011, which was also a record-breaking 12 months for tourism. With the backing of a Mexican government determined to ensure that Mexico will remain a tourism giant, the country’s tourist industry has gone out of its way to promote the benefits of vacationing in Mexico.

From television commercials running in the United States and Europe as well as in Latin America to online campaigns focused around www.visitmexico.com, the Mexican tourist industry has sought to counter negative publicity from the war on drugs.

Promotions have featured the traditional seaside resorts of Cancun, Oaxaca, Acapulco and Baja California, the more cultural offerings of Durango and Aguascalientes and festivals such as the music, dance and craft festival at San Marcos.

Innovative online campaigns include The Mexico Taxi Project, which is designed for visitors to share their Mexican experience by recording their testimonies while traveling in taxis. The project is modeled on the popular U.S. television series “Taxi Cab Confessions”.

“This project’s purpose is to reinforce the image of the Mexican paradise; that place ‘where there is nothing to worry about, except to have good time’”, according to a press release by the Mexican Tourism Promotion Board.

The commercials and online campaigns appear to be paying off.

Despite setbacks such as the February 22 incident near the seaside resort of Puerto Vallarta when passengers from a Carnival Cruise Lines ship were robbed at gunpoint during a shore excursion, tourist chiefs and government officials were aware by March that 2012 looked like it would shape up to be a good year.

Their confidence was prompted by the high attendance and enthusiastic response at the end of March to the Tianguis Turistico, the annual gathering of travel industry representatives and journalists from Mexico and around the world. Latin America’s biggest travel trade show, it was held this year in Puerto Vallarta and was attended by President Felipe Calderon, who flew in after meeting in Guanajuato with Pope Benedict XVI.

“There were more than 22,000 business appointments and meetings at Tianguis this year, a 40 percent jump, and this year’s attendance was up by 75 percent compared to the 2011 event,” says Arturo Tornel, the Tianguis’ information director.

At the gathering Mexico’s Secretary of Tourism, Gloria Guevara, noted, “we have a 98 percent repeat visitor rate and 99 out of every 100 visitors recommends our destinations.”

A few days earlier, Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism (SECTUR) announced that in 2011 22.67 million international travelers visited the country, a two percent increase over 2010 and 0.2 percent higher than 2008, one of Mexico’s best tourism years. Ministry officials say that there was a fall-off in visits by U.S travelers by three percent in 2011, but that, they argue, was reflective of a significant drop-off in international travel generally by U.S. citizens of 4.1 percent.

Even so, Mexico remains the most popular foreign destination for Americans – a third of those who traveled overseas in 2011 chose to go to Mexico, the result officials think of a combination of low prices, short travel distance and, of course, Mexican sun and hospitality.

In 2011, Mexico saw major double-digit increases in visitors from Brazil, Russia, China and Europe.

But the federal and state governments are not only relying on promotion to keep the tourists coming back. They are all giving serious consideration to security planning.

The state government of Mazatlan responded quickly to the February robbery of cruise passengers by establishing a tourism police force in the port and tourist areas. To try to limit any reputation damage, the state government has begun running in the U.S. and Canada TV commercials featuring expats living in Puerto Vallarta extolling the resort’s virtues and safety.

And Guerrero state officials have scrambled to counter the poor image Acapulco received in the international media following a series last year of slayings and beheadings. The state has launched a “Safe Guerrero” campaign involving improved lighting in tourist areas and the installation of hundreds of surveillance cameras.

The upsurge in violence in Acapulco – nearly 700 people were killed in cartel-related slayings in the Pacific coastal city last year – came in the wake of the killing of drug boss Arturo Beltran Leyva and the splintering of his cartel into competing factions. The inter-cartel violence worsened with the entry of other smaller crime groups and a redoubled effort by the Sinaloa cartel to stamp some order on the conflict.

With the violence escalating, the federal government decided last year to turn the Tianguis Turistico into an event with rotating venues after being in Acapulco for 24 years.

But a turnaround in the security situation is underway. Following requests from the Public Safety Secretary of Guerrero, Ramon Borja Almonte, who told Agora last year that without increased resources from the federal government the “security problems could worsen”, the Calderon administration deployed more federal manpower.

Federal security forces are in charge now of nighttime law enforcement and the results have been impressive – since last October there has been a 40 percent drop in homicides in the city.

And The Cartel Killings Don’t Stop

Just days ahead of the Pope’s arrival in Mexico gunmen in the western part of the country ambushed and killed a dozen policemen and seriously wounded another eleven. The ambushed police officers were attacked as they searched for bodies following the discovery of ten severed heads in Teloloapan, a town near the beach resort of Acapulco.

The March 18 ambush amounted to the worst mass killing of policemen since June 2010 when a dozen officers were slain during an ambush on a police convoy in the central coastal city of Zitacuaro.

The ambush came just hours after security forces were tipped off by an anonymous phone caller about the beheadings. The caller said the heads had been dumped outside the municipal slaughterhouse. According to a statement issued to the press by the state Attorney General’s Office (PGJE) ten severed heads were found subsequently by police and soldiers.

Two narco-messages were found by the severed heads. One read: “This is going to happen to all who keep supporting the FM.”

The abbreviation FM is thought to refer to the cartel La Familia Michoacana, which splintered last year after several of its top leaders were either captured or killed by security forces, including the cartel’s overall leader Nazario Moreno’s, who died in a shootout with federal police in December 2010.

Teloloapan, which has a population of about 20,000, is in a steamy, mountainous area known as Tierra Caliente which cuts across Guerrero and Michoacan states. Tierra Caliente has long been a haven for drug traffickers.

In 2010, nine police officers were kidnapped in Teloloapan. The bodies of eight of the officers were found later, six of who had been had been dismembered. After that incident, federal and state authorities mounted Operation Warrior Insurance, a coordinated law-enforcement effort involving the military and state and local police forces which is still ongoing.

In the last few months, the remnants of La Familia, which was once the largest suppler of methamphetamines to drug dealers in the United States, have been locked in a vicious turf war with rival cartels, notably a faction of former members known as Los Caballeros Templarios.

Last year, Guerrero state saw a dramatic increase in violence and, according to federal Ministry of Public Security figures, between January to March in 2011 there were 170 drug-related slayings in the state 60 percent of which occurred in Acapulco. The first two months of this year and there have been 292 murders in the state.