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Arnie Weissmann will host an audio webcast March 12 at 3 p.m. EST to discuss the recent U.S. State Department travel advisory on Mexico.

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ArnieWeissmannA week before my family and I traveled to the Riviera Maya last month, a friend passed along a postcard-size leaflet he had been given. "Warning," it read. "Are you contemplating travel to Mexico -- including Cancun and the Riviera Maya? If so, you must be informed of the unimaginable dangers that exist there. Read these victims' stories and find out what the travel industry doesn't want you to know."

It was illustrated with photos of several people, and at the bottom of the sheet was a URL,  

I went to the website. It had been started by the relatives of a young man who had died of unspecified causes in a swimming pool at a resort. His story was posted, as were the stories of other Americans who had died while visiting Mexico.

The stories, individually and collectively, are heartbreaking. A handful were written by family members of deceased travelers. Others were found in a news feed that linked to articles about tourists and expatriates who had died of unnatural causes in Mexico. Among the victims were children, people vacationing with their fiances and family members attending reunions. Some fell off balconies, others were killed in traffic accidents or drowned or died in circumstances that were unusual or mysterious.

Reading the stories was certainly sobering for someone about to take his family to Mexico, but they also made clear why people whose family members are victims of negligence or crime are never impaneled on juries to determine liability or guilt in those cases. I say this not to cast doubt on their narrations or to suggest that negligence might not have occurred but rather to note that I came away more with a sense of the pain of survivors than that Mexico was particularly unsafe.

Like many in the industry, I have some understanding of where Mexico ranks on a "risk" scale; in addition to visiting Mexico more than a dozen times, I've been to 100-plus other countries, the majority of which could be classified as "developing." As regards safety regulations and their enforcement, the efficiency of emergency response and medical care -- which is really what the creators of the website are calling into question -- Mexico is better than many countries I've visited, worse than some.

There's no question that there are countries I would not take my 6- and 8-year-old children to because I don't believe these destinations have acceptable levels of sanitation, present too many hazards or lack basic medical infrastructure.

But I also know that even "safe" countries are not risk-free. When my 6-year-old was a baby, his life was endangered because a Swiss doctor in Geneva, with great confidence and authority, misdiagnosed a life-threatening condition.

As it turned out, while I was in Mexico with my family, the State Department issued an advisory about drug-related violence there. One hopes that the general public takes note of which locations are mentioned in the advisory and that none are in the popular resort areas where millions take their vacations every year without incident (in fact, the alert suggests that visitors stick to "well-known tourist areas"). Travel agents can provide valuable counseling to geography-challenged Americans who might think twice about visiting Cancun because there's been a shootout in the streets of Ciudad Juarez.

One's car and home remain, statistically speaking, the places one is most likely to have a fatal accident. We travel not to get away from these dangerous locales but because we're attracted to destinations that can bring enjoyment to our lives. On our recent visit to Mexico, my kids bobbed for hours in the wave pool at the Iberostar Paraiso Lindo, learned to snorkel at Xel-Ha and visited Tulum by night.

The only time I detected that either was the least bit concerned with safety was when we swam in a shark tank in Xcaret. (The boys didn't exactly say they were frightened, but both reported an urgent need to pee as we walked to the tank.)

As we were promised, we had fun. But it's the promise of fun that, in part, motivates the creators of the Mexico Vacation Awareness website: The contrast between how much enjoyment we're assured we'll have and the devastation that can result from accidental death amplifies the tragedies. We in the industry often sell travel as a means to escape, and when calamity intrudes, it can make our offers seem hollow (some of the personal stories on the site quote promotional marketing-speak to underscore their points).

But much more often, what is said to encourage people to go out and see the world is neither false nor hyperbolic. Travel typically changes our lives for the better, enriches our understanding of other cultures, refreshes us and, in general, helps us get more out of being alive.

Nonetheless, it's difficult to present a reason-based argument to someone who is making a fear-based decision. Usually, physical geography -- the location of a destination -- figures into our counseling of travelers. But in reality, it's equally important to take internal geography into account. No matter where people go physically, their first requirement is to stay within their comfort zone. We might need to explore those boundaries, and how they took shape, as part of the qualification process.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].


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