Is Mexico's Violence Overblown?

Mexican President Felipe Calderón is touting 2011 as the year of tourism, and the Mexico Tourism Board is spending millions of dollars on ads.

Yet the nation’s deadly drug wars have led the U.S. government to widen its travel warnings in recent weeks, throwing a wrench into Mexico’s effort to attract foreign visitors.

Nearly half of all available rooms in 70 major resort centers in Mexico have been vacant this year, except for the Easter crowd that nearly filled the hotels for a few days over the holiday weekend, according to the tourism board.

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.”

In Acapulco, the occupancy rate at major resorts slid 7 percentage points to 38.4 percent last year from 2008. In that period, Cancun’s rate tumbled to 57.4 percent from 72.1 percent, according to the Mexico Tourism Board. Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Maya have seen similar declines.

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

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 in Mexico, compared with just 35 in 2007, authorities said. Others have been kidnapped from hotels, carjacked at gunpoint and targeted for extortion.

The State Department has urged travelers to avoid the states of Tamaulipas and Michoacan and parts of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Sinaloa, Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and Jalisco.

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