I had the opportunity last week to travel through Mexico with its president, Felipe Calderon. He, unlike some Americans, does not seem nervous about vacationing in Mexico, and he spent his vacation filming a "Royal Tour" of the country for PBS, hosted by CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg. Greenberg invited me to come along for the shoot.
The premise of "Royal Tour" is that a head of state gives Greenberg a personal tour of his country. Previous episodes have featured Jordan, New Zealand, Peru and Jamaica, and whenever Greenberg releases one of these shows, there's a demonstrable lift in visitors to that country. (He also has produced a few "First Lady" tours along similar lines, in Jamaica and California, for the cable channel WE.)
Although two years ago Calderon had proposed demoting the Ministry of Tourism to an agency within Mexico's equivalent of our Department of Commerce, it ultimately stayed a Cabinet-level ministry. Since then, he has focused significant attention on tourism: In March he appointed an energetic new secretary of tourism, Gloria Guevara, and last month he proclaimed 2011 to be the Year of Tourism in Mexico.
That he would spend the better part of eight days filming "The Royal Tour" is ample evidence of the priority that tourism holds in his administration (tourism is Mexico's fourth-largest source of foreign currency).
When I said that I had the opportunity to travel through Mexico with its president, it's not as if I were riding shotgun in his helicopter. I was an observer. Certain things only he and his family did, like scuba diving in an underground cavern on the Riviera Maya. I watched him go in the water and watched him come out of the water, but I didn't get my feet wet.
I was able to participate in parallel in most things. If he and Greenberg rode horses to see the monarch butterfly migration in Michoacan, I rode a horse, as well, but out of camera range. When he went down the steep, narrow staircase to the ancient sarcophagus beneath the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, I shadowed him there.
For the most part, we were in the protective cocoon of a presidential security detail. But on Day 2, not as many helicopters were available as were needed, and 10 of us made the transit from Chichen Itza in the Yucatan to Palenque in Chiapas, about an eight-hour drive, by van.
I was not unhappy about the prospect of the drive. Although most of the week I was immersed in sites related to Mexico's rich history and natural beauty, I didn't want to spend most of my time in a bubble, removed from Mexican society as a whole.
During the 360-mile drive, we watched the landscape turn from relatively flat scrub to green hills. We stopped for a late-afternoon break in Champoton, in the state of Campeche, on the Gulf of Mexico.
We ate tacos at a small outdoor restaurant. Pelicans were thick in the water, and some fishermen had just come in with their catch. I walked down the seaside boulevard and found a colorful, small cemetery filled with what could be called monuments in miniature. Seeing the sarcophagus in Palenque the next day made me wonder if it's in the Mexican people's blood to construct fascinating memorials.
What also impressed me was, first, how fortunate the U.S. is to have a country as interesting, as rich in unique attractions and with such warm people so nearby to us. Secondly, I was struck by how all that I saw was so completely disassociated from the media reports of sporadic violence that keeps some Americans from going there.
There was evidence that Mexicans don't generally feel the same day-to-day threat of violence that we in the U.S. do. Tourists were allowed into Chichen Itza and Palenque while President Calderon was still there, and he greeted people as he walked along. Can you imagine our president being allowed to do that in our public sites?
And in San Cristobal de las Casas, in the heart of the Chiapas, where not so long ago rebel activity was very high, he walked through a crowded market, stopping to purchase leather goods for himself and Greenberg.
This is not to say that his security was lax, but it's indicative that, even in the midst of a war against the drug cartels, outside the border towns, the general threat of violence does not seem high.
On the flight from Mexico City to Cancun, I sat next to a production assistant who was afraid of flying. I told her that I was comforted by statistics on the safety of flying and said that out of the hundreds of millions of people who flew on commercial carriers last year in the U.S., there was not a single fatality.
I would like to say that my comment instantly reassured her, but as we started down the runway she crossed herself. "I know," she said. "[The statistics don't] help."
An irrational fear like that could be classified as clinical anxiety. On the other hand, people who are afraid to vacation in Mexico are not afraid to vacation. They have in most cases been convinced by often sensational media reports that it is unsafe.
That makes me hopeful that they could be convinced by rational argument, put forth by travel agents, that the media reports about violence in Mexico paint a portrait that has little in common with what the 22.5 million visitors to that country last year experienced.
Mexico Tourism Secretary Gloria Guevara will be interviewed by Arnie Weissmann onstage at Travel Weekly's LeisureWorld 2011 and Home Based Travel Agent Show in Las Vegas, Feb. 15 through 17. For registration information, go to www.travelweekly.com/leisureworld/2011/home.aspx.
Email Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.