Recent media reports of tourists who allegedly blacked out at all-inclusive resorts in Mexico after only a few drinks -- with consequences ranging from minor injuries to the death of a 20-year-old woman -- have made some U.S. consumers anxious about Mexico travel, according to travel agents who are fielding calls from nervous clients.
Despite the anxiety, however, few clients have actually canceled trips.
Meanwhile, the Mexico Tourism Board and Iberostar Hotels & Resorts, the company most often mentioned in the reports, maintained last week that the alcohol served at Iberostar and other properties adheres to strict standards when it comes to procurement, handling and serving.
A report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on July 20 detailed a January incident in which a 20-year-old woman drowned in a pool after drinking with her brother, who nearly drowned, ended up with a concussion and could not remember what happened.
The family's attorney later visited the resort and, in a report, alleged, "They serve alcoholic drinks with alcohol of bad quality and in great amounts, mixing different types of drinks," according to the Journal Sentinel.
The report also detailed other cases of tourists who said they had blacked out at resort properties in Mexico after only a few drinks, furthering suspicions that the alcohol was tainted.
The newspaper identified several properties near Cancun and Playa del Carmen. One of those was the Iberostar Paraiso Del Mar, where the woman drowned.
"We reiterate that we are deeply saddened by this incident and that we take this matter very seriously," Iberostar Hotels & Resorts said in a statement. "We would also like to emphasize that for us at Iberostar the safety and satisfaction of guests is of utmost importance."
According to Iberostar, it hosts more than 500,000 guests each year in Mexico.
"A high standard of quality for food and beverages is crucial for the daily operation of our resorts," Iberostar said. "We work with food and beverage providers whose products comply with the highest quality standards to guarantee the satisfaction and safety of all of our guests. We work with a host of providers in the area who service other hotel chains and renowned brands. Similarly, we only purchase sealed bottles that satisfy all standards required by the designated regulatory authorities."
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The Mexico Tourism Board said in a statement that it has been monitoring the situation since the January drowning incident occurred.
"The sympathies of the Mexico Tourism Board, and the entire Mexican tourism industry, go out to those affected," the board said.
"We can confirm the strictest guidelines and processes [are in place] related to alcohol procurement, handling and serving of guests with the goal of ensuring quality and control by the hotel and industry."
The board said that with 35 million international tourists visiting Mexico each year, "incidents such as these are extremely rare."
It also referenced an update from the U.S. State Department urging travelers to drink moderately.
While the State Department's official travel warning about Mexico does not reference potentially "tainted" alcohol, it focuses on potential violence from criminal organizations in certain areas of the country (typically not in resort areas and tourist destinations).
However, a State Department spokesperson said the department is aware of the recent media reports and has updated the information it provides on Mexico. Its website now includes the following information:
"Alcohol: There have been allegations that consumption of tainted or substandard alcohol has resulted in illness or blacking out. If you choose to drink alcohol, it is important to do so in moderation and to stop and seek medical attention if you begin to feel ill."
The State Department advised U.S. travelers who become ill to seek immediate medical attention and contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
Agents have reported mixed reactions from clients. Some haven't heard anything, others are fielding calls from anxious travelers, and some have seen a few cancellations.
John Werner, president of the MAST Travel Network, said his network's member agents are getting calls from concerned clients and have seen "some cancellations." Of those, some have been rebooked to other destinations, and some have been rebooked at different properties. Meanwhile, others are going ahead with their Mexico vacations despite concerns.
In light of the situation, Werner said MAST sent its members some talking points: "The overwhelming majority of people from all over the world, including Americans, go to Mexico by the thousands every week without incident. They have a great time, and they don't seen anything bad during their stay."
MAST's talking points go on to acknowledge that while the odds are against negative experiences happening, "no one can guarantee your safety and security in Mexico or anywhere else in the world, including the United States."
Bob Thompson, executive vice president of Pittsburgh-based Ambassador Travel Service, said no clients had canceled, but several members of a group traveling to Mexico expressed concerns.
"It does present a dilemma of whether to bring it to people's attention," Thompson said.
He added that Ambassador is not currently informing clients of possible issues with Mexican liquor because the agency cannot check the veracity of the reports.
Lynn Clark, co-owner of Travel Leaders in Delafield, Wis., has adopted a different tactic.
Her agents first have a conversation with clients about the situation, and the clients are then asked to sign a document Clark calls a "Cancun advisory" acknowledging that they have been advised of the recent reports. Most have chosen to carry on with Mexico vacations. The only exception so far were two clients who changed destinations to Hawaii and Jamaica.
Catherine Banks, owner and vice president of Legacy Travel in Dallas, has also been fielding calls from clients, mainly brides who have destination weddings planned in Mexico.
"My sense is that, by and large, people, what they're wanting is just to be reassured," she said.