As a travel journalist, I see writing about a destination as a huge responsibility. Readers are not always going to share my opinion on the aesthetics of a city or resort, but when personal safety becomes one of the considerations for visiting, it is quite another issue.
The recent news of drug trafficking violence and kidnappings in Mexico has not been encouraging for travel, yet all the reasons to visit — the beauty, beaches, culture, history, traditions and great value, particularly these days — remain.
As Southern Californians, we have come to view Mexico’s nearby vacation offerings as our own. We can drive over the border or hop a convenient flight directly to our destination. Personally, as a Southern California native and travel writer who has experienced the best of Mexico over the last 40 years, it has disturbed me to ignore Mexico’s enviable tourist charms in my writing and traveling in recent months.
So, when I was invited to join a handful of other travel journalists and news media representatives to attend a roundtable discussion with Mexico’s top tourism honchos in Los Angeles recently, I went — armed with some tough questions.
The roundtables, being conducted in select major U.S. cities, are Mexico’s attempt to answer questions and clear up misconceptions about travel in the country. Among those qualified to answer questions regarding the safety of Americans traveling in Mexico was Carlos Behnsen, deputy director of the Mexico Tourism Board; Jorge Gamboa, director of the Mexico Tourism Board in Los Angeles; and Bryan Estep, vice president of Mexico-Latin America for Travelocity.
The first issue that was an important clarification is that the U.S. government has issued a “Travel Alert,” not a “Travel Warning,” for travel in Mexico. There is a huge difference.
A travel warning, to me, means “don’t go there.” A travel alert means use precaution.
What kind of precautions should we take? Their answer was common sense for any city in the world: Stay on the beaten path in high-traffic areas, don’t display fancy jewelry or cash, and definitely don’t drink excessively.
A prime question: Have tourists been killed, injured or kidnapped in resort areas due to the drug war?
Their answer is no. Of the 80 million American tourists who visited Mexico in 2008 as day excursionists and overnight visitors, there are no reports of tourists being kidnapped, injured or killed in resort areas or anywhere else in the country due to the drug war. A high percentage of American deaths in Mexico have been attributed to auto accidents (usually connected with intoxication) and drowning.
Could you be caught in the middle of a drug-related shooting if you visit? The panel’s answer was enlightening.
Mexican resort towns are 1,000 miles to 2,000 miles from the targeted drug war areas. This would be akin to not going to Palm Springs because of a violent attack in Chicago. In fact, the targeted areas of drug cartel violence have been identified as the northwestern border regions of the country. These represent only five of 2,400 counties in the entire country.
Should you plan a trip to Mexico? By all means, but do so as an informed traveler. Travel updates are available at www.mexico-update.com and www.visitmexico.com. If you would like to speak to someone at the Mexico Tourism Board, call (800) 446-3942.
Mexico, always known for its hospitality, is rolling out great cost-saving travels for Americans. With the exchange rate of the peso now granting you an approximate 30 percent increase in buying power, it is a great time to visit Mexico.
Kathy Strong is a freelance travel journalist. She writes the weekly “Going My Way” column for The Desert Sun and is the author of five travel guidebooks.