When the U.S. State Department issued a spring break travel advisory on March 13, warning travelers to take extra precautions when visiting Mexico, the message spread far, wide and fast. Broadcast news carried horror stories of illegal drugs and gang crime as reasons to rethink vacation plans—most tragically, the kidnapping of four American medical tourists in Matamoros on the Texas border in early March, two of whom were found dead.
“It’s like clockwork,” says Zachary Rabinor, the American founder of travel agency Journey Mexico. “Every year before spring break we get the same wave of sensationalism. People need eyeballs, and what better way than to scare them? In some ways it’s an even clearer sign that we’re already worrying about the pandemic. “
In fact, he says, the State Department hasn’t issued any new travel advisories for Mexico since last October, including updates to existing warnings related to additional public-health information, not crime. The Spring Break Alert, meanwhile, urges visitors to pay attention to several factors — the list includes 10 points ranging from illegal drug activity to counterfeit drugs to drowning risks.
On crime, it urges Americans to “exercise increased caution, especially after dark, in the downtown areas of popular spring break destinations, including Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum,” on the grounds that “crime, including violent crime, can occur anywhere in Mexico.” , including popular tourist destinations.” (Never mind that this could be anywhere in the world.)
“Most of Mexico remains on a Level 2 alert, which applies to countries like France, Spain, Italy and more,” says Rabinor.
Why is there a warning?
Mexico is a large, diverse country, not a monolithic destination. The most common spring break locations in the states of Quintana Roo (Cancun, Tulum, Playa del Carmen) and Baja California Sur (Los Cabos), currently classified by the US State Department at Standard Level 2; The states of Oaxaca and Mexico City are also classified at that level.
While only a handful of destinations worldwide are considered Level 1—meaning travelers should “take normal precautions”—two Mexican states actually qualify as such: Yucatan and Campeche. If you are planning a trip to Merida you can visit earlier.
Seven of Mexico’s 32 states are classified as Level 3—”reconsider travel”—while six more are listed under the U.S. State Department’s Level 4 warning—”do not travel.” The department attributes those 13 state designations to widespread criminal activity and kidnapping risks. (Matamoros is located in Tamaulipas, one of the Level 4 states.)
“Nothing has changed radically in terms of travel. The tourist areas — Oaxaca, the Pacific Coast, Mexico City, Yucatan — are protected like islands, and don’t follow the trends you see in Tamaulipas, Michoacán, and so on,” says Romain Le Cour, a part-time resident of Mexico. who researches organized crime as a senior expert at the Global Initiative.” He argues that the alerts help the U.S. government channel warnings to Mexican authorities: essentially saying, “The U.S. can’t stop tourism right now, but we can increase these warnings, so pay attention. “
For his part, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is keen to send a message in return. On March 13 he criticized the State Department’s warning as “despicable,” saying, “Mexico is safer than the United States and there are no security issues that prevent travel.”
Rabinor, who splits his time between Mexico and New York, reads between the lines. “The reason we get these new advisories every spring is because you get these waves of American college kids going down and doing stupid things,” he posits. “The government’s goal is to reduce that stupidity by getting parents on board, so they encourage their kids to deal with nothing more than the stupidity that lives on a college campus on a day-to-day basis.”
fear of fear
In the past month, Google has seen a 200% spike in people asking: “Is it safe to travel to Cancun right now?” And in the week following the early March event in Matamoros, searches for Mexico travel ideas dropped by 75% in popularity, according to Google Trends Insights. Since then, they have been steadily declining. That’s one way to measure the impact of the hard news on the tourism economy, which accounts for 8.8% of jobs in Mexico and represents about 8% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to government data.
“We’re seeing cancellations and doing everything we can to clear up the confusion,” says Steph Farr, co-owner of Maya Lux, a villa agency that manages 100 exceptional homes on the Riviera Maya. “But that’s easier said than done. Some people have already made up their minds, and as a result we’ve lost business.”
What she describes is not a massive loss of business but a significant disruption: Farr says her sales team took at least eight canceled bookings in February, all in response to a State Department security warning after Mexico tightened security even before the incident in Matamoros. In the news cycle. (More recent figures were not provided.)
“Even the most educated and erudite people respond to these tips,” says Rabinor. “Fear is an emotional response, and we are filled with anxiety and worry.”
Calculating the impact on business is complicated, he says. “We can’t measure the loss of people who never called, who decided to go to Yosemite or Florida or the Caribbean.” (Most popular Caribbean destinations, including Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, are also considered Level 2.)
Other travel advisors report that their clients are underwhelmed. “I think people are more than sensationalists,” says Jack Ezon, co-founder of travel agency Embark Beyond. “Americans are listening, it’s almost a new approach after Covid.” Previously, he expected to be busy fielding calls and arranging cancellations over security concerns. Now, Ezon says, “We haven’t seen anything, not a single hesitation.”
The same is true in Paris, Israel and Turkey, where political instability and earthquakes have made headlines.
Rabinor offers a stark reminder: Although his company’s bottom line depends on sending travelers to Mexico, it depends even more on ensuring the safety of its guests and employees. “We will be the first to use a contingency plan or advise a change in itinerary if there is any risk to both our staff and customers,” he explains.
Alison Nash, a travel designer with Cloud10, a Virtuoso-affiliated agency, says she’s gotten a lot of calls from travelers who put Mexico on their short list — especially for a year-end vacation trip. Crime sometimes registers as a concern, she says, overshadowed by inflation and increases in taxes, room rates and fees. “Any hesitation,” Nash adds, “is less about safety and more about value.”
This story is published from the Wire Agency feed without modification to the text. Only the headline has been changed.