Spring Break Safety

Officials say drug violence is no threat to tourists

By: By Maribeth Mellin


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Baja Blues

Northern Baja has been hit especially hard by Mexico’s drug wars. Constant reports of violence and travel alerts specifically warning tourists about the border areas have nearly destroyed the tourism industry in Tijuana, Ensenada and Rosarito Beach. San Felipe took a heavy blow when Costa Mesa’s Summer Winter Action Tours recently canceled its spring break excursion to the laid-back town on the Sea of Cortez. Officials in all Baja destinations insist that tourism safety is paramount and no tourists have been injured or killed because of drug battles. Tijuana has launched a new tourism campaign celebrating the city’s 120th anniversary and a Fast Track border program rewarding tourists who spend at least 1,000 pesos at participating businesses. But reassurances and promotions haven’t lured day-trippers across the border.  

Long-range trips are a different matter. Baja Expeditions continues to transport its clients from San Diego to Ensenada by bus to board private flights to the company’s whale-watching camp at San Ignacio Lagoon. Despite the bad news about Baja, "We’ve had only one cancellation," spokesperson Jeanne Prentice said.

Baja AirVentures ensures "worry-free Mexico travel" by flying clients from San Diego to Bahia de los Angeles, then transporting them two hours by boat to the company’s Las Animas Wilderness Retreat in the sea of Cortez’s Midriff Islands.

One needn’t go to such extremes to enjoy Baja, however. Guided tours eliminate much of the worry and hassle of traveling in northern Baja. Baja California Tours runs guided bus tours across the border, providing an added layer of security and comfort for worried travelers. "We tell the clients that we have been traveling every day to Tijuana, Rosarito and Ensenada on the daily bus tour," said company owner Barbara Littlemore. "There has never been even a hint of a problem for the travelers," Littlemore said.

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Mexico is getting slammed from all sides as the international media broadcasts news of ongoing drug wars along the northern border. Recent travel alerts from the U.S., Canada, France, Italy and Germany added a higher level of concern by cautioning vacationers to be aware of increasing violence in Mexico. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms followed up by warning college students to avoid Mexico’s border areas during spring break. According to Ella Messerli of the Los Cabos Convention and Visitors Bureau, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

Cancun established a police force just for its hotel zone. // (c) The Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau
Cancun established a police force just for its hotel zone.

"If spring break had happened next month, we wouldn’t be having all this mess," she said.

Meanwhile, travel agents, tour operators and consolidators worked closely with the Mexican government to dispel misconceptions, using everything from talking points for agents to video testimonials on destination Web sites.

"Many people are alarmed and confused at the same time because they don’t know how to react to an alert such as this," explained Oscar Fitch, CEO of the Mexico Tourism Board.

The most popular destinations for spring break (and year-round tourism in general) are Cancun, Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, Ixtapa, Mazatlan and Los Cabos — destinations far from border battles. Cancun, for example, is 2,012 miles from Tijuana.

"You have to put it into perspective," said Steve Loucks, vice president of communications for Travel Leaders. "You can’t paint the whole country with a broad brush."

"Definitely, the bad press is affecting the tourist destinations, even though the locations are far away from the northern borders,’’ said Jose Manuel Garcia of IVI Destination Management, which has offices in Mexico’s major tourism destinations.

"We don’t want to hide anything," Enrique Gandara of Pueblo Bonito added. "There is some violence and crime, but it’s not in the whole country. The beach areas are secure destinations."

But there have been reports of drug-related violence far from the border. Scenes of the brutal slaying of a military general and the subsequent arrest of Cancun’s police chief filled television screens in February. As in most such situations — even with the violence in the border towns — the action took place far from the city’s hotel zone.

"It was very unfortunate," said Jose Bayon, undersecretary for tourism operations for Quintana Roo. "But it was an isolated case. Yes, it was related to drug traffic, but it has nothing to do with our population or tourists. Mexico, like any other country in world, has issues. We are fighting a war against drugs. It is a very strong and determined war and it has caused some casualties. We are very sorry for that. But this has nothing to do with our activity as a tourism destination. Eighty percent of our state’s income depends on tourism. It would be suicide if we did not pay attention to these issues."

Cancun, which benefits from having an island-like hotel zone with only two entry points, has established a bilingual tourism police force to patrol the zone, "to make sure everyone knows the police are there to help," Bayon said.

Additionally, Mexican police throughout the country now have to go through background checks, lie detectors and more rigorous training.

"This is so we have a more effective and honest police servicing our communities and resorts," Fitch reported.

Acapulco, another favorite destination for fun-filled spring breaks, has been largely trouble free. But its name appears in the news when problems occur in other parts of Guerrero state. To reassure tourists, the Acapulco City Hall, the Guerrero State Government and the Mexico Attorney General have joined forces to ensure the safety of tourists.

"Everybody is working together to ensure the safety of all our travelers," said Piqus Rochin, spokesperson for the Acapulco Destination Marketing Office.

The city has a new tourism police force and its famed discos and nightclubs have beefed up security. Like Cancun, Acapulco is posting testimonials from current visitors on its official Web site.

"All the tour operators and visitors know how safe it is. And they are all very interested in the value the tourist is getting," said Rochin.

Travelers are reaping benefits from Mexico’s concerted effort to promote safe tourism — and from the world’s economic situation. The dollar now buys 15 pesos (up from 10 in 2008).

"There’s tremendous value," Loucks said. "Travelers can get an awful lot of bang for the buck."

By providing up-to-date information on travel alerts, precautions and misconceptions, Travel Leaders and other companies are giving agents the tools to educate their clients.

"Business is good for travel-industry professionals because they’re the ones who educate the consumer — the ones who talk one-on-one with clients," Messerli said.

However, agents should remind clients that most travel insurance policies will not cover trip cancellations due to uncertainty or civil unrest.

"We want to make sure all of our customers who are going to Mexico can make informed decisions," Loucks said, "and can make up their own minds about whether they actually want to go."