Mexican officials went on the defensive this week in swift reaction to the U.S. State Department's latest travel warning, which cited Mexico’s ongoing drug-related violence in urging travelers to take precautions.
The violence, the State Department said in a warning issued April 22, has produced security concerns that pose "serious risks" for U.S. citizens.
The new warning significantly expanded the scope of an alert that has been in effect since last September, adding five more of Mexico’s 32 states to the six states already listed in an earlier warning. (Click the image for a larger view of a map detailing the areas listed in the warnings
The warning has to be read carefully, which is among the problems that Mexico’s tourism officials are grappling with, according to Rodolfo Lopez Negrete, chief operating officer of the Mexico Tourism Board.
"This is very confusing to travel agents, tour operators and travelers," Negrete said. "We wish that these warnings were less general and more specific. By citing Jalisco, where Guadalajara has had problems but where Puerto Vallarta in the same state has not, people think the entire state is under siege."
Sandy Babin, Apple Vacation’s vice president of marketing, said, "The public in general and agents who sell Mexico are frustrated when travel warnings are too general. Despite the media’s fear and hype, millions of vacationers still travel to Mexico. Travel agents are catching on that the negative news is way too broad and they are starting to ask questions about specific geography."
She said that maps and infographics showing specific trouble zones would give perspective to Mexico’s size and the distance between incidents and resort areas.
For example, Nayarit made the new list because of cartel-related episodes in the interior city of Tepic while Riviera Nayarit, a resort region on the coast, "is pristine and completely safe," Negrete said. He called for "modified language, which would make the travel warning much fairer and less confusing for the U.S. consumer."
The challenge facing Mexico is that the travel warnings "make it very hard to attract new consumers," Negrete said. "The old ones come back. They know Mexico. They know the cartel violence is a gang-against-gang struggle for territorial domain in certain areas, but potential visitors don't know that."
Travel agent Joyce Craddock of Incredible Journey in Applegate, Calif., has dealt with that exact issue.
"Most folks will not travel to Mexico because of the violence," she said. "There are too many places in the world to visit where visitors don’t feel threatened."
Mexico tourism officials consistently seek to put geography at the forefront of the violence issue in an effort to educate travelers on the size of the country and the location of the resort areas in relation to the border-centered violence.
Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, agreed.
"For whatever reason, Mexico only has negative news. Positive news does not come out," Richards said. "News is not linked to the fact that the violence is very far from the three largest tourist destinations in Mexico, where tour operators and agents do 90% of their business."
While the travel warning concedes "there is no evidence that U.S. tourists have been targeted by criminal elements due to their citizenship," it advises travelers to be aware of surroundings and exercise particular caution in unfamiliar areas."
Mike Going, president of Funjet Vacations, urged careful reading of the travel warning.
"If you really read the whole warning, while it looks like a big change, it is a clarification of dangerous areas that were generally already covered," Going said.
The State Department "has an obligation on a specific date range to address a warning, which I believe is every 180 days," Going said. "My understanding is that this is what drove this new warning, not any major change from one day to the next."
Hotels in the resort regions reported better than 90% occupancies in the Holy Week period "with no reports of violence," Negrete said. "The State Department travel warning must not be taken out of context. It makes for a confusing, messy situation."
Although there is no quick fix for Mexico’s problems with drug cartels and related violence, Babin of Apple Vacations said that "the safety of tourists is a priority for the Mexican government."
"Apple Vacations sends more than a million travelers to Mexican resort destinations each year. Amstar, our destination management company, is available on a daily basis to our clients in the resorts," she said.