For six years, Mexico has been fighting a bloody war against drug cartels, and a bloodless virtual war for public opinion of U.S. travelers.
Every time a piece of good news comes out about Mexico, it gets drowned out by an avalanche of bad news. At the dawn of 2012, the trend continues.
The New Yorker magazine profiled Tijuana's restaurant scene late last month, calling it one of the most dynamic in North America. But a story published at about the same time probably wiped out any wanderlust among all but the most ardent foodies.
The New York Times wrote that a new report from the Mexican government said 47,515 people have been killed in the violence since 2006. That's roughly the number of U.S. combat deaths in the Vietnam War.
Several human rights activists said the number was too low by at least a quarter.
It's because of this situation that Mexico remains on the official U.S. State Department Travel Warning list, the highest level of alert issued by the government. It's there with the likes of North Korea, Sudan, Iraq, Libya, Haiti and Congo. The only other country on the list that has a serious tourism business is Israel, and living with terrorism on trips there has always been part of the deal.
The U.S. has placed Mexico on its travel warning list because of narcotics violence, though a close read shows the areas of concern are mostly in large border towns, some areas of the interior and portions of Mexico City.
Still, it's tough to sell a "sun and fun" destination against that backdrop. Mexican officials complain the travel warning has the effect of lumping in Cancun and Cabo San Lucas with the shooting galleries of Ciudad Juarez and the worst parts of Tijuana. Officials have put on a massive public relations campaign, coming north to argue the case for tourism, working with friendly advertising-hungry media outlets on free trips to tout vacation spots.
I've found four camps when it comes to the question of travel to Mexico, and I frequently hear from them all: Those who wouldn't ever go to Mexico; those who say it isn't what it used to be and have given up returning; those who go often (including those with second homes) and say the media has overblown problems; and everyone else.
For Mexican tourism officials, the battle is for the hearts and pocketbooks of that last group. Mexico has always been sun and fun on the cheap — usually less expensive than Hawaii or the Caribbean, a little wilder than San Diego. Until fairly recently, you didn't even need a passport for most visits. Even in hard times, Americans still head south. According to U.S. government statistics, 10.3 million Americans visited Mexico in the first six months of last year.
Spurring tourism would be tough in this economy without the added image burden (and now reports of possible swine flu resurgence). In a mostly upbeat San Diego Union Tribune interview last month, Juan Tintos, the tourism secretary for Baja California, said Americans used to make up two-thirds of vacationers. Today it is one-third. While the Mexican domestic market is important, it often lacks the deep pockets of the American visitors.
Tintos noted that cruise ship companies have pulled out in part because ports had charged too much and tourist options had become "tired." Fonatur, the Mexican government agency that planned Cancun, Los Cabos and Loreto, has had plans for Escalera Nautica, or "nautical stairway," a string of ports in the Sea of Cortez, including 10 new ones, to attract high-income yacht owners. That seems like a distant dream today.
Perception is everything in tourism. From a tourism standpoint — and that is all I am talking about here — Mexico doesn't have to defeat the cartels and end corruption. It just has to move it to the background and away from visitors.
Memories can prove short, and beautiful beaches and great deals can bring things back. But don't expect it to happen overnight. Mexico will get a fresh start with Orange County in June when AirTran starts flying nonstop to Cabo San Lucas and Mexico City. I'm going to Cabo on a great introductory fare. I'll let you know about the rest of the trip when I get back.
Gary A. Warner: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mexico fights for its image in eyes of travelers
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