Mexico Tourism Board Says Its Country Is Safe
While the Mexican government is in a war against drug cartels, the country's tourism industry is spending millions of dollars to convince Americans to continue visiting the country.
Carlos Behnsen, executive director of the Mexico Tourism Board, led a roundtable discussion Wednesday at the Intercontinental Hotel in Century City. "We're trying to send the message that Mexico is safe."
Compared to the first quarter of the previous year the overall international tourist bookings increased almost 2 percent, but the U.S. bookings alone fell slightly 3 percent, Behnsen said.
The Mexico Tourism Board announced it will spend $47 million this year for advertisement and public relations campaigns compared to an annual average of $37 million. Strategies include issuing more media conferences, launching tourism websites that feature testimonials and adding investments in domestic markets while reducing them in Europe.
Mexican president Felipe Calderon declared war on drug gangs in 2007 after a wave of violence killed thousands of citizens and challenged his ability to govern. But the Mexico Tourism Board said many Americans may not be aware the drug crackdown is isolated to five out of 2,400 counties.
Behnsen said Tijuana, Nogales and Ciudad Juarez are three of the four affected towns that lie along the border, but they're hundreds of miles north from popular tourist destinations like Cancun and Acapulco. "Cancun to Tijuana is a little more than 2,000 miles, which is equivalent from Los Angeles to Chicago."
But Kathy Strong, a freelance travel writer, questioned the panel about the safety of driving past border towns.
“The roads are protected, there is a lot of light, roadside assistance is available and some highways have increased police presence,” said Eduardo Chaillo, director of strategic business unit for the Mexico Tourism Board.
Jorge Gamboa, director of the Mexico Tourism Board's Los Angeles office, added there have been no reports in which drug cartels were involved with American tourist injuries, kidnappings or killings at resorts or throughout the country.
The leading cause of death for the 1,128 Americans who died in Mexico from June 2005 to June 2008 was vehicle accidents, Behnsen said.
The panel acknowledged the weak economy contributed to American travel reduction but said inconsistent media reports may have caused Americans to be negatively confused about the violence in Mexico after the U.S. renewed a travel alert in February.
"A travel warning means do not travel to a particular country or destination...versus a travel alert, which is related to short terms and does not discourage people to travel to different countries or places," Behnsen said. "In Mexico, it basically suggests to have more precaution and use common sense."
Arline Inge, another travel writer, has taken trips to Mexico since the 1950s. Inge said the current problem is perception about tourism safety.
Inge visited Mexico in February and received a tour of Cosala, a village in the heavy drug-traffic state of Sinaloa. However, Inge said she felt uncomfortable: "[The mayor] was always followed by a car with three armed guards holding AK-47s every time we went out.”
Mexico's tourism revenue was $13.2 billion a year ago. Out of the 22.6 million international tourists who visited Mexico, 18 million came from the U.S.
Behnsen said there is no timeframe to how long the drug war's effect on tourism will last. "It's a shared responsibility between the U.S. and Mexico because the majority of weapons come from the U.S."
During his first day in Mexico Thursday, President Barack Obama vowed to fight drug cartels by working to halt illegal cross-border firearms sales.
Reach reporter Len Ly here.