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Mexico’s conflicting images: Sun, fun – and death

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Mexican tourism advertising in latest Forbes.

DRUG WARS & TOURISM. In the latest issue of Forbes, and elsewhere, Mexico is running an ad campaign to attract tourists. At the same time, headlines of drug related violence and head-less corpses are all over the world. For travelers, the two pictures of the country contradict each other, to say the least. On the one hand: Beautiful beaches, interesting Maya ruins, tequila, sunshine and a rich cultural heritage. On the other: Dead bodies and international narcotics trade.

How do they fit? The short answer would be, they don’t. But during Mexico’s war agains the cartels since 2006, surprisingly few tourists have become victims for violence. And the United States, Mexico’s biggest customer in terms of tourism (and narcotics), isn’t exactly safe, either. Roberto Borge, governor of Quintana Roo, the Mexican state that includes tourism hotspot Cancun, points out that according to FBI figures on violent offenses in 2010, there were 227 in New York City, 184 in Chicago and 90 in Houston. Meanwhile, Cancun in Mexico had 80 and Cozumel only three, website Austin Culturemap in Texas reported.

But the U.S. continues to issue travel Mexican warnings, which upsets its southern neighbor. “This hurts Mexico, where tourism is the third largest sector of the economy, but it also hurts people working in Texas in the tourism industry,” the governor said.

Mexico has asked U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that her State Department becomes more specific in its travel warnings, thus not issue a general warning for Mexico, but rather for a specific city or region. And indeed, judging from the flow of news headlines, it seems warnings are issued for good reasons.

Acapulco, Mexico. Photo: Traveling Reporter

Earlier in May, the remains of at least 43 men and half a dozen women were found along a highway outside Mexican city Monterrey. According to officials, suspicions pointed towards one of Mexico’s leading drug cartels, Zeta. The victims were the latest of about 50,000 people having been killed in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led assault on powerful drug cartels in December 2006.

A Mexican newspaper front page in 2009.

Mexico’s drug violence has been a public relations nightmare for the president, Yahoo News reports, scaring off potential tourists and causing foreign investors to stay away.

But Mexico is a large country, and the risk of walking into a shooting or some other trouble has to be judged compared to dangers in other destinations. And while Mexico’s tourism business industry does suffer from scary headlines, the situation isn’t that bad, at least not in certain areas. The number of tourists entering Mexico by plane hit 22.7 million in 2011, the most ever, according to statistics released in February by the Bank of Mexico, the Chicago Tribune reported. Hugo Torres, the former mayor of Rosarito Beach, Mexico, said to the paper that tourism from the United States to Baja, on Mexico’s western coast, fell 70 percent as news of the war on drugs spread in 2008. But the region has since recovered about 20 percent of that, he said.

• See the Traveling Reporter’s page on how to travel safe for general advices

“The city of Rosarito had its lowest crime rate ever in 2010, but that is not the perception in the United States,” Torres said to the Chicago Tribune. “People hear about violence in Juarez and the thought is that all of Mexico is dangerous. Americans don’t know Mexican geography.”

The beach of Tulum, eastern Mexico. Photo: Traveling Reporter

The U.S.-Mexico border region, with cities like Juarez, should be avoided. But elsewhere, Mexico seems safe enough. The Traveling Reporter went on a two week journey to Mexico in 2009, covering places like Veracruz, Acapulco, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel. Nowhere did we come across any signs of drug related violence, other than on the front pages.

But while most of the almost 50,000 killed in narcotics-related violence have been members of cartels, the Baja Insider reports, “innocent persons have also been killed. The number of U.S. citizens reported to the Department of State as murdered in Mexico increased from 35 in 2007 to 120 in 2011.” The Baja Insider continues: “Gun battles between rival TCOs (transnational criminal organizations, editor’s note) or with Mexican authorities have taken place in towns and cities in many parts of Mexico, especially in the border region. Gun battles have occurred in broad daylight on streets and in other public venues, such as restaurants and clubs. During some of these incidents, U.S. citizens have been trapped and temporarily prevented from leaving the area.”

The Maya ruins in Teotiuachan, Mexico. Photo: Traveling Reporter

As always when traveling, you need to keep an eye on what is going on around you. But if you do, as well as stay away from areas covered by travel warnings, there seems to be little reason to give up Mexico as a travel destination, at least as far as the risk of violence is concerned. The latest U.S. travel warning on Mexico was also mere detailed than earlier warnings, Mexican officials noted with satisfaction. The State Department has added information on drug violence on a state-by-state and city-by-city basis.

“The revised U.S. State Department travel advisory regarding Mexico adheres to these principles and should serve as model for the rest of the world,” Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete, chief operating officer for the Mexico Tourism Board, said to the Los Angeles Times.

The editor of the Traveling Reporter works as a business news editor, and is a frequent traveler. When not doing any of that, he spends time on his boat and tries to figure out where to travel next. Two of his top destinations are the Philippines and San Francisco. Email Erik! Follow the Traveling Reporter at Stumbleupon, Tumblr, Chime In, Pinterest, Google+, Weibo, Storify, Facebook, Traveldudes, Myspace.