By Nikki Ekstein | Bloomberg
When the US Department of State released a spring break travel advisory on March 13 warning travelers to take extra caution when visiting Mexico, the message rippled far, wide and fast. Broadcast news disseminated scary stories of illegal drugs and gang crime as reasons to reconsider vacation plans—most tragically, the early March kidnapping of four American medical tourists in Matamoros, on the Texas border, two of whom were found dead.
“It’s like clockwork,” says Zachary Rabinor, the American founder of travel agency Journey Mexico. “Every year preceding spring break we get the same wave of sensationalism. People need eyeballs, and what better way than fearmongering? In some ways it’s the clearest sign yet that we’re done worrying about the pandemic.”
In reality, he says, no new travel advisories to Mexico have been issued by the State Department since last October, in which the updates to the existing warning related to additional public-health information, not crime. The spring break alert, meanwhile, asks visitors to be mindful of several factors—the list includes 10 points ranging from illegal drug activity to counterfeit medication to the risk of drowning.
On crime, it asks Americans to “exercise increased caution in the downtown areas of popular spring break locations including Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, especially after dark,” on the basis that “crime, including violent crime, can occur anywhere in Mexico, including in popular tourist destinations.” (Never mind that it can also occur anywhere else in the world.)
“Most of Mexico remains at a Level 2 warning, which is the same that applies to countries like France, Spain, Italy and more,” says Rabinor.
Why Warnings Happen
Mexico is a big, varied country, not a monolithic destination. The most common spring break locations, in the states of Quintana Roo (Cancún, Tulum, Playa del Carmen) and Baja California Sur (Los Cabos), are currently ranked by the US State Department at a standard Level 2; the states of Oaxaca and Mexico City are also categorized at that level.
While only a small number of destinations globally are considered Level 1—meaning travelers should “exercise normal precautions”—two Mexican states indeed qualify as such: Yucatán and Campeche. You might visit the former if you’re planning a trip to Mérida.
Seven of Mexico’s 32 states are classified as Level 3—“reconsider travel”—while an additional six are listed under the US 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 radically changed in terms of traveling. The touristic zones—Oaxaca, Pacific Coast, Mexico City, the Yucatan—are protected, like islands, and don’t follow the trends that you see in Tamaulipas, Michoacán, and so on,” says part-time Mexico resident Romain Le Cour, who as a senior expert at Global Initiative conducts research on organized crime. “He argues that the alerts help the US government channel a warning to Mexican authorities: Essentially saying, “The US may not prevent tourism right now, but we can escalate these warnings, so pay attention.”
For his part, Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been eager to send a message in return. On March 13 he criticized the State Department warnings as “vile,” saying that “Mexico is safer than than the United States and there’s no security problem that prevents travel.”
Rabinor, who splits his time between Mexico and New York, reads between the lines. “The reason we get these new advisories in the spring every year is because you get these waves of American college kids going down and doing stupid things,” he posits. “The government’s goal is to minimize that stupidity by getting parents on board, so that they encourage their kids to behave with only the same amount of idiocy that they live with on a day-to-day basis on a college campus.”
In the past month, Google has seen a 200% spike in people asking: “Is it safe to travel to Cancún now?” And in the week following the early March incident in Matamoros, searches for Mexico travel ideas declined in popularity by 75%, according to insights on Google Trends. Since then, they have continued to decline. It’s one way to quantify the effect hard news can have on the tourism economy, which accounts for 8.8% of jobs in Mexico and represents roughly 8% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to government figures.
“We are seeing cancellations and are doing our best to clear up the confusion,” says Steph Farr, co-owner of Maya Luxe, a villa agency that manages 100 exceptional homes on the Riviera Maya. “But it’s easier said than done. Some people have already made up their minds, and we have lost business as a result.”
What she describes is not a large-scale loss of business but a significant disruption: Farr says her sales team logged at least eight canceled bookings in February, all responding to the State Department’s safety warnings even before the incident in Matamoros brought Mexico safety more fully into the news cycle. (More recent figures weren’t made available.)
“Even the most educated and erudite people do respond to these advisories,” says Rabinor. “Fear is an emotional response, and we have been flooded with concerns and anxiety.”
Calculating the impact on business, he says, is complicated. “We can’t measure the loss of people who never called, who just decided instead to go to Yosemite or Florida or the Caribbean.” (Even many popular Caribbean destinations are also considered Level 2, including the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos Islands.)
The Less Concerned
Other travel advisers report that their clients are undeterred. “I think people are over sensationalism,” says Jack Ezon, co-founder of the travel agency Embark Beyond. “Americans are numb, it’s almost a new outlook since Covid.” Before, he’d have expected to be busy fielding calls about safety concerns and tallying up the cancellations. Now, Ezon says, “we haven’t seen anything, not a single hesitation.”
The same is true, he adds, in Paris, Israel and Turkey, where political instability and earthquakes have made headlines.
Rabinor offers a strong reminder: Even though his company’s bottom line depends on sending travelers to Mexico, it depends even more on ensuring the safety of his guests and staff. “We would be the first to use a contingency plan or advise a change in itinerary if there was any risk, both to our staff and clients,” he explains.
Alyson Nash, a travel designer with Cloud 10, a Virtuoso-affiliated agency, says she’s taken plenty of calls from travelers who’ve kept Mexico on their short lists—particularly for yearend holiday travel. Crime, she says, registers only as an occasional concern, outweighed by inflation and increases in taxes, room rates and fees. “Any hesitation,” Nash adds, “tends to be less about safety and more surrounding price.”
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