Editor’s Note: A major earthquake struck southern Mexico last week, killing at least 90, primarily in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas near the Guatemala border. The U.S. State Department has not added the earthquake to its Alerts and Warnings list.
Both Chiapas and Oaxaca are included in the department’s State-by-State Assessment of Mexico, with directives for U.S. government employees in those areas (“not allowed to use public transportation,” for example). For information: travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/alertswarnings/mexico-travel-warning.html
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Is it safe to travel to Mexico?
The complicated answer: It depends.
It depends on where you’re going, it depends on what you’re doing, it depends on your tolerance for risk.
The same might be said for many popular tourist destinations.
Is it safe to travel to New Orleans, for example? Chicago? Cleveland?
“You can visit Detroit and be very safe,” said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “But there are places you wouldn’t want to go. The same is true for Mexico.”
He added: “If people do their research and follow the same good-sense guidelines that they would do in any American city – they’ll be absolutely fine.”
Included in what Wood calls good-sense guidelines: Don’t drink excessively; don’t buy drugs; don’t wander into unfamiliar neighborhoods, especially at night.
Wood, who travels to Mexico at least once a month and lived there for 17 years, offered his advice in the wake of the U.S. State Department’s decision last month to expand an existing Travel Warning for Mexico, which now includes, for the first time, some of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, including Cancun and the Riviera Maya area on the Caribbean coast, and Los Cabos on the Pacific coast.
Unlike some State Department warnings, this one does not recommend avoiding travel altogether; it simply “warns U.S. citizens about the risk of traveling to certain parts of Mexico due to the activities of criminal organizations in those areas.”
Even so, the new warning sent shock waves through the $20 billion Mexican tourism industry, and the many American companies that support it.
Mexico is the most popular international destination for U.S. travelers, attracted by cheap prices and easy access. Every year, more than 25 million Americans travel south of the border, for sun, sand, big cities, small towns, cultural sites and mega-resorts.
Make that 25 million minus seven.
One Ohio businessman, who asked that his name not be used in this story, recently canceled a November cruise to Mexico for his extended family, including two young grandkids.
“Hated to cancel and probably would have been fine, but would never forgive myself if something happened to kids or grandkids,” he wrote in an email.
The expanded Travel Warning comes in the wake of increased gang and drug violence in Mexico’s most popular tourism regions. Cancun, with a population of 725,000, recorded 71 murders in the first six months of this year – more than three times the number for the same period a year ago, according to news reports.
Most violent crime occurs apart from the tourist zone, though not all. Among the most publicized incidents: A shooting last January outside a Playa del Carmen nightclub that left five dead, including one American (who was not shot, but trampled as she exited the club); and several police-gang shootouts in downtown Cancun.
“The biggest threat in Mexico is just literally being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Chris Hagon, a security consultant with Orlando-based IMG Group.
The key, of course: knowing where the wrong places are.
American travelers know how to research hotels and restaurants, said Wood. “Do the same kind of research for safety.”
Long-time Mexico traveler Andy Powell, of Shaker Heights, said he has never once feared for his safety in Mexico. “We do avoid areas and states known for drug activity, we stay away from border towns and larger cities and always away from large crowds of American tourists,” he wrote in an email. “I think if you look at all the incidents, the majority occur in the heavy tourist areas, late at night, alcohol is involved usually too.”
In addition to drug-related violence, travelers also are expressing concerns about reports of tainted alcohol at Mexican resorts. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this summer chronicled the story of a young Wisconsin woman who drowned in a resort pool after drinking what her parents believe was tainted alcohol. After the initial report, dozens of other travelers came forward with similar tales.
Last month, in response, Mexican authorities seized 10,000 gallons of illicit alcohol and temporarily shut down two bars in the Cancun area during a well-publicized raid.
Wood’s advice: Don’t drink excessively, drink recognized brands of alcohol at known resorts, and watch the bartender make your drink.
Local travel agent Bill Coyle said travelers need to put their worries in perspective. He believes the media has blown both the new warning and the reports of tainted alcohol out of proportion.
Many countries – including the Bahamas, Great Britain, the United Arab Emirates and others – have issued warnings and alerts to their citizens about travel to the United States (about street crime, the Zika virus, police protests and other issues).
“You have to be cognizant of your surroundings and be wise about where you’re going,” said Coyle, with Brunswick’s Encompass the World Travel, who was last in Mexico in May and will be going back two more times this year.
He said he has 60 clients headed to Mexico in the next few weeks. Only one has canceled.
Among those who are going: Gladys, a client from Strongsville, who will celebrate her 74th birthday with her sister and eight friends at a resort outside Playa del Carmen.
She said she thought about canceling, but decided to go after talking with friends and her grandson, who recently honeymooned in Mexico without any problems. “People are still going to Paris,” she said. “People are still going to London. You can’t stop living.”
Coyle, too, tried to put her at ease – not to convince her to go, he said, but to educate her about the risks. He’s getting regular updates from hotels, tour operators and tourism officials about how they’re increasing and improving security.
Major cruise operators, too, are fielding calls from travelers concerned about Mexican ports of call. None has made itinerary changes in response to the warning, instead urging travelers to exercise caution and be aware of their surroundings off the ship.
Wood said the Mexican government is on notice.
“We know what happens if the Mexican government doesn’t get a handle on the problem – we can look to Acapulco, which used to be the jewel in the crown of Mexico,” he said. The former resort town on the west coast has been upended by drug-related violence in recent years, and largely deserted by tourists.
Wood said the government will do everything it can to prevent that from happening in the Cancun area, which draws one-third of the nation’s tourists. “This is something the Mexican government will dedicate a lot of money to – because they have to.”
Meanwhile, Wood has made plans to spend Christmas in Los Cabo, which also is under the State Department’s new Travel Warning. He’ll travel with his wife, kids, his mother and in-laws.
“Yes, your risk levels have gone up from a year or two years ago,” he said. “But your chances of having anything go wrong are still very slim.”
Tips for traveling to Mexico
Plan to stay at your resort or on resort-sponsored tours
Buy medical insurance for your trip (if your health insurance doesn’t cover trips out of the country)
Avoid driving, especially at night
Don’t drink excessively
Enroll in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to stay updated on conditions in your destination
Resources for research:
State Department warnings and alerts: travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/alertswarnings.html
U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Mexico: mx.usembassy.gov
English-language online news site covering the Yucatan Peninsula: theyucatantimes.com
Nonprofit journalism and investigative organization that specializes in organized crime in Latin America: insightcrime.org
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel stories about tainted alcohol: jsonline.com/mexicoblackouts
New travel warning raises the question: Is it safe to travel to Mexico? – cleveland.com