Mexico Wants Tourists ... to Not Be Afraid

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Cortesia / Newscom

U.S. missionary Nancy Shuman Davis was killed in northeastern Mexico

Mexican President Felipe Calderón recently declared 2011 the Year of Tourism — and he insisted that despite all the negative drug-war publicity Mexico gets these days, "99.9%" of visitors to his sun-splashed country "have pleasant vacations." He's right: a minuscule portion of foreign tourists have been affected by Mexico's violence. But on Jan. 26, a day after Calderón's proclamation, a U.S. missionary was murdered in a part of northeastern Mexico that is rife with narcocriminals, reportedly shot in the head by men in a black truck who tried to stop the missionary and her husband on a road near the U.S.-Mexico border.

The victim, Nancy Shuman Davis, 59, was not a tourist, nor was she killed anywhere near one of Mexico's tourist zones. But her tragedy helps explain why Calderón is on the tourism offensive. With more civilians, including foreigners and U.S. citizens, getting caught in Mexico's drug-war cross fire, a death like Davis' can cast a pall, unfairly or not, over south-of-the-border vacation plans. In January, major cruise lines like Royal Caribbean and Carnival announced plans to reduce or even stop voyages from California to Mexico, citing passenger jitters. "People here have certainly been concerned," says Janet Rhines, owner of Windy City Travel in Chicago, which books a large number of vacations in Mexico. "I do encourage them to be open-minded and understand that most resort areas are safe. But the Mexican government needs to get out there with a better information program."

Calderón seems to have gotten the message. That's largely because Mexico can't afford another repeat of 2009, when international tourism to the country plunged 15%, to $11.3 billion from $13.3 billion in 2008, thanks to the global recession and a swine-flu scare as well as narcoviolence. Such a drop is no small thing in a country, the world's 10th most visited, where tourism is the third largest source of foreign income, behind migrant-worker remittances and oil — especially at a time when those revenues are also in sharp decline. It's important, too, because any hit to Mexico's economy, which shrank 6.5% in 2009, risks sending more unemployed Mexicans into the lucrative but bloody drug-trafficking industry.

Both Mexico's economy and foreign tourism, which was up more than 7% in 2010, had a healthy rebound last year, when almost 10 million international travelers visited. But much of the tourism recovery came via sometimes steep price discounts that Mexican hotels, airlines and restaurants can't sustain for too many more years. The trick is to convince the world that Mexico's spectacular drug carnage — more than 15,000 narco-related murders last year — is mostly confined to northern Mexico, especially in border cities like Juárez, and that it doesn't represent the general crime situation in Mexico, which has a considerably lower murder rate than countries like Brazil do.

In theory, that shouldn't be difficult, and the 2010 figures indicate that Mexico's narcos aren't scaring away that many visitors. As travel experts like Rhines note, tourists at Mexican resort destinations like Los Cabos on the Baja peninsula, Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific Coast and Cancún on the Caribbean Mayan Riviera are insulated from the shootouts.

But Mexico's narcoviolence is known for its frightening gore, and when it's visited on even one well-known tourist site — like Acapulco, where in the first week of January 14 slain and decapitated bodies were dumped at a shopping center, or Mazatlán, where a week later a Canadian tourist was shot in the leg by a stray bullet from a gangland execution — foreigners considering a Mexican vacation often don't make distinctions. As it is, the Disney and Holland America cruise lines last week announced that they're canceling stops in Mazatlán, and the tanks and masked soldiers now patrolling La Costera, Acapulco's main drag, are hardly a tourist-brochure hook. To help counter its dependence on foreign ships, the Mexican Tourism Ministry announced the creation of a national line, Ocean Star Cruises, which, starting in April, plans to dock at six of the country's Pacific Coast sites.

One of the ironies of Calderón's Year of Tourism proclamation is his plan to "work very strongly with international media to show Mexico as it should be shown, a true natural, cultural and historical beauty." This despite the fact that he often blames the international media and its drug-war coverage for much of Mexico's image problems. And when he's not blaming foreign journalists, he's chiding Mexicans for badmouthing their country, as he did last spring when he complained that "Mexico is demonized and reproached, even by Mexicans," adding that he'd "never heard a Brazilian speak ill of Brazil," host of both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.

All of which is a reminder that the dour Calderón could use some of the Amazon-size media savvy possessed by former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who left office in January. Foreigners might be less wary of Mexico, for example, if they were more aware of Calderón's impressive judicial and police reforms, but his distrust for the international media has kept that message from resonating as strongly as it should — not a smart strategy when you're competing with severed heads for attention. Calderón is right: perception does matter. And so does the leader who is selling it.

With reporting by Dolly Mascareñas / Acapulco