Mexico on defensive as bookings drop after U.S. warning

Cancun beach
Cancun bookings dropped 20% in the week following the new travel warning, said Apple Leisure Group CEO Alex Zozaya. Photo Credit: David Donaire/Shutterstock

Mexico's tourism industry went into damage control mode this week as tour operators reported that bookings to the country were taking a hit following the State Department's recent travel warning that cited increased homicide rates in the resort states of Baja California Sur and Quintana Roo.

"If you compare the rate in terms of homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in any city in the world, those particular destinations are very low," said Alfonso Sumano, international offices director for the Mexico Tourism Board. "I'm not saying that there are no problems ... but the Mexico authorities are aware of certain incidents or certain problems that they have been facing in areas close to the destinations but not affecting any tourists or people enjoying the destinations.

"I truly believe that the travel advice, that the travel recommendation, is very clear and they are not recommending not to go, they are just recommending to use your common sense," he added.

Sumano pointed out that Mexico had a 12.6% increase in U.S. visitors in July 2017 compared with July 2016, and an 11.8% increase, or 6.7 million additional U.S. visitors, from January through July 2017 compared with the same period the year before.

But that growth appears to potentially be in jeopardy following the updated travel warning, which came on the heels of a series of reports alleging that potentially tainted alcohol was being served at all-inclusive Mexican properties.

Tour operators reported that following the Aug. 22 release of the updated travel warning, they began experiencing a slowdown in Mexico bookings and an increase in cancellations.

"Insofar as impact on business, we have seen an uptick in cancellations, but we still see demand as being strong," said David Hu, CEO of Classic Vacations. "With all destinations, we advise our travelers to be aware of their surroundings and be cautious in certain situations, but we feel that the destination overall is much safer than the warning paints."

Alex Zozaya, president and CEO of Apple Leisure Group, said that in the week following the new travel warning, overall bookings to Mexico were down while Cancun bookings fell 20%.

Mexico cancellations were also up, with some travelers opting for Caribbean destinations instead.

Zozaya believes that two high-profile incidents led to the new travel warning:  an organized crime-related shooting on a public beach in Los Cabos in August in which three people were killed, and a shootout at a club in Playa del Carmen in January leaving five people dead.

His main concern, however, is that the political rhetoric painting Mexico as an extremely unsafe destination, and the media coverage of it, could ultimately do the most damage.

"When the president Tweets 'let's build the wall,' that's fine. But [when he calls] Mexico 'one of the most dangerous countries in the world' -- that's the message that really hurts, that's the message that is increasing the concerns or the anxiety, that's not helping at all," Zozaya said.

President Trump tweeted on Aug. 27, "With Mexico being one of the highest crime Nations in the world, we must have THE WALL."

Zozaya added that while he doesn't feel the State Department's travel warning was entirely politically motivated, he does think it is being blown out of proportion.

The warning, he said, "is factually correct, but it is partially correct. The percentage of tourists killed [in Mexico], that's much lower than most tourism destinations including tourism destinations in the U.S."

Along those lines, Mark Travel Corp. issued a statement to travel agents advising them to "arm yourself with the facts about Mexico travel safety, but also don't be afraid to share your own personal experience about the destination, hotels and the people of Mexico."

Despite the warning and the media coverage of safety issues in Mexico, the company stated that it continues to sell the destination with confidence and thinks that Mexico will remain one of its top destinations.

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