Baja, Land of Drug Wars, Tries to Draw Tourists

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Sandy Huffaker / Getty

A vendor waits for customers at an artisan market in Rosarito, Mexico. The tourist industry in some Northern Mexican resort towns is feeling the effects of the ongoing drug war.

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"We want to let everyone know in California that everything is okay here," says Torres. But it's hard to fight the tidal wave of negative news.

"I strongly urge any U.S. investors to stay away from Mexico real estate," says Nancy Conroy, former editor and publisher of the English language newspaper, Gringo Gazette North. "Basically, northern Baja is under military occupation, there are several narco shootings per day, and tourists are not immune."

Some 900 miles south, at the tip of the Baja peninsula, the luxury resort area known as Los Cabos, is also suffering the drug backwash. But the issue there is not drug wars, but the kidnapping of the high-end tourist trade, which it has sought the last 10 years.

Los Cabos is Mexico's top spot for private jet traffic, but this year there's been a 30% drop, officials say. Passenger airline traffic has "softened" too, according to an Alaska Airline's spokeswoman, though no figures were given. Alaska, with the most flights, and other airlines are maintaining their schedules, but are using smaller planes to handle the diminished crowds, according to Ella Messerli, vice president of marketing for Los Cabos Visitors and Convention Bureau.

"It's been a communications challenge for us reminding people we're a thousand miles away from the trouble," says Messerli.

Hotels in Los Cabos, with rooms commonly averaging over $400 a night, aren't lowering rates, but are offering incentives like $400 credits toward airfare, free rental cars, and massages. Messerli says hotel occupancy rates were down just slightly in March, from 80% to 76%, which she attributes to bad press up north, she says.

Others don't see such a rosy picture.

"This is as bad as I've seen it," says Bill Baffert, director of sales and marketing for Baja Resorts, which operates two hotels in Baja. Baffert has been doing business in southern Baja since 1981. "This is going to be much tougher than after 9/11."

See TIME's section on travel around the world.

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