Travel advisories confused on Mexico’s stability
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The United States government and the tourism industry in Mexico seem to pull each other in different directions all due to differing opinions on the drug trade. The drug war has been going on for decades with little to no improvement of the security situation.
The U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs’ most recently issued a travel warning on Feb. 8 that tried to balance the threat of violence with Mexico’s need for tourism.
“Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year for study, tourism, and business, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day,” according to the travel warning. “The Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations, and there is no evidence that Transnational Criminal Organizations have targeted U.S. visitors and residents based on their nationality … Travelers should be mindful that even if no advisories are in effect for a given state, crime and violence can occur anywhere.”
Later that month, 22 tourists were robbed at gunpoint (some sources say by a one-armed man) in Puerto Vallarta on Feb. 23 while on a hiking expedition during a Carnival Splendor cruise.
Confused? I sure was. Why would an American-based corporation allow Americans to hike without security personnel through an area surrounded by government warnings to defer nonessential travel?
The highest warnings are in place throughout the regions bordering Texas and central Mexico, with all warnings connected to drug trafficking in some way. A few prime tourist destinations are placed in this area, though the majority of destinations are heavily protected by the Mexican police in “no advisory” zones. Mexico’s warnings are equal to those for Syria, North Korea and Afghanistan though the tone for Mexico’s advisory is much more lighthearted.
U.S. government personnel and their families are prohibited from traveling for personal reasons through most of Mexico’s states for various “security and safety reasons.” Overall, the state department urges all visitors to be aware of their surroundings, especially at night, and to stay near tourist areas.
The Texas Department of Public Safety issued its own warning on Mar. 6 that encouraged spring break travelers to avoid Mexico due to continued violence, according to a press release from the Texas Public Affairs Office.
Department of Public Safety Director Steven C. McCraw noted that many people travel to Mexico without conflict, but urged travelers to consider the risks.
“The Mexican government has made great strides battling the cartels, and we commend their continued commitment to making Mexico a safer place to live and visit,” McCraw said. “However, drug cartel violence and other criminal activity represent a significant safety threat, even in some resort areas.”
“Many crimes against Americans in Mexico go unpunished, and we have a responsibility to inform the public about safety and travel risks and threats. Based on the unpredictable nature of cartel violence and other criminal elements, we are urging individuals to avoid travel to Mexico at this time,” he said.
A few organizations have claimed that Texas issued this warning to encourage domestic tourism. If so, this is another economic struggle to claim the cash of eager tourists.
Despite the statistics and warnings, Americans travel to Mexico more than any other country. In 2011, there were almost 20 million visitors, with 1.3 million to 2.1 million visitors each month, according to the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries’ U.S. Citizen Air Traffic to Overseas Regions, Canada and Mexico 2012 report.
The first nine months of January 2011 saw 14,827,592 visitors from the United States. The first nine months of January 2011 also had 12,903 narcotics related deaths.
The number of U.S. citizens murdered in Mexico increased from 35 in 2007 to 120 in 2011, according to the Department of State. Between Dec. 1, 2006 and Sept. 30 of 2011 there were 47,515 people killed in narcotics related violence in Mexico.
Though most of the deaths are from people working directly with narcotics trafficking, many innocent civilians and tourists have also been caught in the line of fire.
These innocent deaths are covered up by cheery advertising campaigns that use white, American, English speaking tourists that drown out any warnings that their local news may provide about criminal activity.
The Mexico Taxi Project, an advertising campaign launched by the Mexico Tourism Board in November 2011, may have foreseen the travel warning. This campaign tries to entice potential visitors by using footage from hidden camera interviews of tourists during cab rides home. A 30 million dollar campaign paid for by the Mexican government, it claims to tell “nothing but the truth about a remarkable place.” The first question the travelers were asked was about safety. The commercial “3 friends come back from Los Cabos” was aired on cable television stations in the United States and focused on the safety issue.
Cab Driver: “Did you guys feel safe and everything down there?”
Tourist: Oh, yeah. It was one of our biggest … we, we almost didn’t go
Tourist 2: I would definitely recommend it. Everything you hear on the news is not what you experience down there. You’re in paradise, in two hours.
The ads feature people returning from Cancun, Akumal and Cabo San Lucas — all areas without advisories. The banner of the website claims that the videos represent “real people, real stories, [and] the real Mexico.”
The Mexico Tourism Board’s main website, visitmexico.com, calls the country, “the place you thought you knew.” The articles emphasize learning and exploring on the visitor’s own terms and claim the country is an excellent place to revive relationships and curiosities long forgotten. The site features vibrant colors and reassuring statements such as, “With these and more delights, this cosmopolitan city spreads out among the peaks, offering fun, adventure and relaxation that will satisfy all visitors.” This is a statement about Monterrey, a city within a state that the U.S. government has encouraged citizens to avoid all non-essential travel. The site features no explicit sections on safety.
The annual tourism trade industry show was so important to President Felipe Calderón of Mexico, that he flew directly from his meeting with the Pope in Guanajuato to open the event in Puerto Vallarta.
Sixty-three percent of Mexico’s GDP is from the service industry and over 60 percent of its population is employed in this industry. Last year Mexico had 22.67 million international travelers, a record breaking 5.7 percent jump from 2009 according to Mexico’s Tourism Board.
In the recent Latin American summit, Obama isolated the United States due to the positions it takes on the drug war and on Cuba.
Latin American countries found that the United States’ policies on the drug war disproportionately affect them. Obama recognized that there needs to be more debate on the issue, but refrained from actual discussion and instead offered the traditional $130 million sum to aid military efforts in the region.
Mexico, also a large trading partner with the United States, is beginning to take its business elsewhere, as it now trades more with China than it does with the US for the first time ever.
Mexico and the United States need to have a candid discussion about the greater effects of the drug war, instead of sending passive-aggressive statements to the public through advisories and advertisements.
It is not economically feasible or politically responsible to believe that the same strategies for this drug war will get better results. If anything, the current policies represent the United States ignoring the larger effects of its actions. I understand that it is important to protect the citizens of the United States from harm, but Mexico’s government has strategically placed its police and military forces in high tourist areas to protect its visitors. If the United States is going be serious and decisive about encouraging Americans to avoid Mexico, then it needs to stop using a peppy tone in the warnings.
Mexico is an easily accessible paradise for many Americans. People won’t stop having dreams of spring breaks in Cancun or crossing the border to Tijuana to get knock off Coach purses. The verbal statements coming from the United States aren’t going to change that. Policy will affect change, and a hard look about the way this country treats drugs is necessary to move forward and make both countries safer, more prosperous and more unified.
Kayla Reopelle is a sophomore documentary studies major who plans to visit all Mexican states with travel advisories, and survive. Email her at kreopel1[at]ithaca[dot]edu.