I spent Jan. 30 through Feb. 4 in Mexico reporting on the filming of "The Royal Tour," a PBS series hosted by CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg. The episode being filmed featured Mexico President Felipe Calderon, acting as a tour guide for various sites around his country. After filming in the town of Tequila, I interviewed Calderon aboard his jet on a flight from Guadalajara to Mexico City and asked him about security, the next big resort development and several other topics related to travel and tourism in Mexico.
Travel Weekly: Some Americans are very focused on questions about their safety and security in Mexico. Is Mexico a safe place to vacation? And if so, what can a travel agent say to potential travelers to Mexico to reassure them it is safe?
President Felipe Calderon: Most of the troubles we have are with gangs fighting other gangs. They are not attacking or disturbing tourists. We are receiving 22 million international visitors a year, not counting the 6 million more visiting on cruise ships or the 49 million visitors who cross the borders. There are very few cases [of violence involving tourists].
One thing [agents can do] is to define exactly what the problem is. Mexico has more than 2,500 municipalities, and 80% of the problems are focused in 80 municipalities. Consider the rate of homicides per 100,000 people. Mexico has about 15 homicides per 100,000 people. Jamaica has about 60. Guatemala and El Salvador are closer to 70.
Even after my friend [former Colombia President Alvaro] Uribe did such an amazing job in Colombia, there are still 35 homicides per 100,000 there, and Brazil has 22. And even some cities in United States, like Washington, D.C., Baltimore and New Orleans, have more homicides per 100,000 people than Mexico; Atlanta is about the same. And there are states in Mexico -- Yucatan, Campeche, Tlaxcala, Queretaro and even Quintana Roo -- that are as safe as many regions in Europe.
TW: Do you feel you are making progress in getting your message across?
Calderon: We are trying. It's not easy. The media is so focused on the [drug gang-related] troubles. Any single incident has a lot of appeal for a newspaper. I understand that.
TW: What steps are you taking to make sure that tourists are safe?
Calderon: In addition to our policy fighting criminals, we are improving the institutional conditions of the police and attorney general offices in the whole country, and we are paying special attention to those areas that people visit the most. Any incidents involving tourists, whether linked to violence or not, are attended to at the federal level.
TW: Are there specific areas in Mexico that you would say tourists should avoid?
Calderon: Frankly speaking, Ciudad Juarez has a problem, and we are dealing with that.
TW: Are visitors from other parts of the world as nervous as Americans seem to be about visiting Mexico?
Calderon: In general, tourist arrivals from other countries grew more than America, on average, with the exception of some European countries, though that is probably more related to their economic situation than anything else. Canadians increased about 25% from 2009 to 2010, and Brazil grew about 94%. But even tourism from America grew about 15%.
TW: Leaving aside security for the moment, what new development plans do you have for tourism? What is going to be the next Cancun?
Calderon: Well, we have several plans. For instance, we are establishing a new area, a Centro Integralmente Planeado, a comprehensive planned center, like Cancun or like Huatulco, or like Ixtapa. It's on the Pacific Ocean, north-central more or less, in Sinaloa.
Its name for now is TeaCabana, but we're trying to find a better name, one that's easier for tourists. It's going to be an all-new town, with all the services. It's an amazing development plan. And there are other projects, one in Tamaulipas probably, but that would follow [TeaCabana].
TW: Mexico's new tourism slogan is "The place you thought you knew." What is the one place you know about that most people don't know but that you think tourists might enjoy?
Calderon: Well, I must say my own city, Morelia, and Michoacan, my own state. Most people know about Mexico's beaches, Cancun, Riviera Maya and maybe [the Mayan ruins in] Chichen Itza, but a colonial city with vitality and a lot of history and a state with indigenous people, handicrafts, landscapes -- it's something the people should know.
And in addition to that, probably you could see the Huasteca places [in northeastern Mexico], the Sotano de las Golondrinas ["Cave of the Swallows", a very large pit cave in San Luis Potosi] or, as we have seen, Tequila and the landscape of the agave plantations. So there are several places that people can still get to know in Mexico.
TW: Where do you take your family when you go on vacation?
Calderon: I'm trying to bring my kids to all those places unique to Mexico. For me, that includes the amazing phenomenon of migration of animals: the monarch butterflies in Michoacan and Estado de Mexico or the whales in Baja California Sur.
Actually, during the first 10 years of marriage, [my wife] Margarita and I tried to go at least once a year to Cancun. We like it so much. I know that it's a very common place, but to visit the Riviera Maya or Cancun is often the right decision. And now, as president, when I have a long weekend, I bring my kids and wife to Acapulco, which is close to Mexico City. It's easy for me.
There are a lot of other places. Most people like Oaxaca; it's so different from the beaches. And there are those places under development, like Zacatecas. The new thing for me, and I think for a lot of tourists around the world, is ecotourism, places related to the environment. To me, the best [ecotourism] place I've seen is Montes Azules in Chiapas. Why? Because it's a very well-preserved reserve, and you can experience an amazing state of nature.
TW: Have you ever vacationed in the U.S.?
Calderon: Well, I lived in Boston for a year when I studied there at the [John F.] Kennedy School [of Government at Harvard University]. It was not a vacation, but I enjoyed that very much. I had the opportunity then to visit places in the snow. I like to ski.
About 10 years ago I went with Margarita and my kids to Orlando and Disney World. But let me tell you, about 20 years ago I had the opportunity to visit the States in a different way. I was with a program through the State Department, and I visited several cities, starting from Washington, D.C., but also during that trip I visited Yellowstone. That was a very important experience for me. I liked it very much.
TW: You've emerged as a leading voice on the topic of climate change in the international community. How might climate change impact tourism to Mexico?
Calderon: Climate change is affecting the whole of humankind. There are the so-called adaptation problems that every single nation will have to face, sooner or later. Mexico is already spending a lot of money on adaptation to climate change, in order to preserve not only the environments where the people live but our natural resources and our places for tourism.
TW: It's thought that hurricanes may become more frequent and stronger as a result of climate change.
Calderon: When we know a hurricane is coming, we can anticipate the impact early enough, so we have been able to provide all the security measures that are required, bringing tourists to places of refuge or facilitating to help them to fly back to their own countries.
Cancun, as you know, has amazing beaches, very long beaches, and [after Hurricane Wilma] suddenly the beaches became very narrow, so we invested a lot -- $80 million -- to restore the beach. We moved tons of sand from other places, but we acted very carefully. Divers removed every single snail from the bottom of the sea where we were getting sand, and we didn't do this near any reef that might be damaged. We acted in accordance with the most serious environmental standards. In the end, it was a very successful operation.
TW: I'll end with another security-related question. One of the problems you face in overcoming the image that Mexico is unsafe is that the stories of drug-related gang violence continue to recur. When things die down, there's a new incident, then after things die down again, there's another new incident. Do you have any idea when the drug war will finally get off the front pages of newspapers?
Calderon: No, I have no idea. But let me tell you, the government's effort is not exactly a war on drugs in the old sense, like the American war on drugs coming from President Reagan. We are fighting any kind of expression of organized crime in Mexico, not only those related to drugs.
I understand that it's impossible to erase the drugs themselves. As long as there are people consuming or using drugs, there will be a problem.
But our purpose is to restore the authority and to re-establish in Mexico strong institutional frameworks in order to enforce the laws. Our main goal is to make Mexico a rule-of-law state, where the law is enforced and anyone -- visitors or citizens -- will live in order, following the law, with a strong government supporting and defending the rights for everyone.