With its vibrant, colourful street life, rich culture, sunny climes, white-sand beaches, and succulent, spicy food, Mexico is – or at least should be – a perfect holiday destination. Yet these days, whenever I tell friends, family or colleagues back in Europe that I’m visiting Mexico, a hushed silence inevitably follows, as if I’d told them I were embarking on a week-long cultural tour of Syria, followed by a few days’ backpacking in the Afghan outback.
“What about narcos, violence, kidnappings, robberies?” they inevitably ask, as though that were all Mexico had to offer. You can hardly blame them: after all, that has been the dominant narrative of the last few years, packaged and sold in all its gory detail by our mainstream press. The inevitable result is that millions of foreign tourists have been discouraged from visiting the country out of fear of falling victim to crime. And millions, if not billions, of dollars have been lost along the way.
Mexican Tourism: An Essential Life Line Now Under Threat
For Mexico, a strong tourist sector is vital to its economy. According to one report, Mexico was the tenth most visited country on the planet in 2013. Its tourism industry is the third largest “official” (i.e. non-criminal) source of revenues, behind oil and remittances, accounting for close to 9% of GDP and providing more than 2.5 million domestic jobs.
In the last couple of years, the sector’s prospects have – or at least had – begun to brighten as the international media’s ever-simplistic narrative shifted 180 degrees from one of total despair to one of unprecedented hope. Instead of bloody corpses hogging the limelight, all the talk was of the new President Enrique Peña Nieto’s ambitious reform program to transform Mexico into a thriving, highly liberalised market economy.
For a while the new narrative worked. As the tragic fate of the frontline victims of Mexico’s ongoing War on Drugs was buried deep under glowing reports on Mexico’s economic renaissance, tourists began to return in droves. By the end of this year, approximately 28 million international tourists will have visited the country, a 15% surge on last year’s total.
However, much of that influx was registered before the disappearance of 43 students from the South Eastern region of Guerrero just over two months ago, which lit the spark to Mexico’s biggest political crisis of a generation. Once again the blood and gore is back left, right and centre. And if that’s not enough to put people off booking a seven-day, all-inclusive stay in Puerto Vallarta or Cancun, a recent spate of government travel warnings should do the trick.
Misleading Travel Alerts
In the past week the U.S. state department issued its latest travel alert, cautioning US citizens against visiting nine out of Mexico’s 31 states (Coahuila, Colima, Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, Sinaloa, Sonora, Tamaulipas) and advocating extreme security precautions when visiting a further 11 (Aguascalientes, Baja California, Chihuahua, Durango, Estado de México, Morelos, Nuevo León, San Luis Potosí, Veracruz, Zacatecas).
Given that these 20 states represent over 60% of Mexican territory, including vital tourist regions such as Baja California and Jalisco, and U.S. visitors account for over half of Mexico’s entire tourist industry, this latest travel warning has the potential to exact a severe toll on a slowly recovering sector. For Mexico’s already debilitated economy the timing could not have been worse, coming on the heels of five-year price lows for Mexican crude oil (now trading at below $50), a plummeting peso, and a barely contained stampede out of Mexican bonds.
But it’s not just the U.S. that is warning against visiting parts of Mexico – Canada, the UK, Australia, and a host of other governments have issued similar travel alerts in recent months. And while these warnings may be steeped in nuance and caveats, most travelers have neither the time nor inclination to read between the lines. What they want is the gist, and in this case the gist could not be clearer: give Mexico as wide a berth as possible.
Fear and Ignorance
The result is widespread ignorance about the reality of traveling in Mexico. For example, most people I encounter here in Spain and the UK mistakenly believe that Mexico City is an extremely perilous place to visit. The reasoning is simple: as the capital city of a country invariably portrayed in the media as a hellhole of violence and instability, Mexico City must itself be a death trap for foreign visitors. The reality, as even USA Today reported in 2009, is that Mexico City is one of the safest regions to visit, with a murder rate (8 per 100,000 people) significantly lower than that of Washington D.C (21 per 100,000 people), a city that travelers feel relatively safe visiting and about which there is not a single official travel alert.
Indeed, the scale and scope of violence across Mexico has actually been on the decline since the turn of the century. “If you look at history, today we have fewer murders, both in raw numbers and rates,” Mario Arroyo, a researcher with the Citizens’ Institute for Crime Studies, told USA Today.
According to the independent Prominix report, the assault rate in the U.S. is nearly 5 times greater than that of Mexico, although Mexico has a higher overall homicide rate. Even when factoring in independent estimates for unreported homicides, Mexico ranks 21st behind many popular vacation destinations. Places we often think of as idyllic Caribbean retreats such as St. Kitts & Nevis, Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and Brazil have double, triple, or even quadruple the murder rates of Mexico. What’s more, Mexico’s famous vacation areas (Yucatan, Mexico City, Quintana Roo, Puerto Vallarta…) are even safer than the averaged statistics, and even safer still for tourists.
Even in those regions of Mexico that are dangerous, those who bear the brunt of the violence are local residents who fall victim to kidnappings or extortion or get caught in the crossfire between rival drug gangs. For tourists the risks of getting caught up in Mexico’s wave of criminality are negligible, especially when traveling in the non-border regions. According to the U.S. State Department’s own travel alert, the number of U.S. citizens reported as murdered in Mexico was 81 in 2013 and 85 in 2014 to date. As tragic or as avoidable as those deaths may have been, they represent a tiny proportion (0.0000015 %) of the 55 million-or-so Americans who cross the border each year.
That is not to say that Mexico is a risk-free destination – far from it – but rather that overseas travel is by its very nature an activity fraught with calculated risks. As I wrote in “Economic Lessons from a Mexican Taxi Driver”, whenever you visit a new city or country, there are certain unwritten codes of behaviour that, for the sake of personal safety, need observing. As the ancient adage goes, when in Rome, live as the Romans do.
However, by blowing up the potantial risks of traveling to Mexico, the State Department has done its southern neighbour a massive disservice at a time when what it most needs is international solidarity. If millions of Americans are ultimately put off crossing the Southern border, thousands of Mexican jobs could be at stake and an already struggling economy further destabilised. More to the point, if American travelers take the press and the U.S. State Department at their word, they risk missing out on one of the most beautiful, welcoming and culturally rich destinations the world has to offer. By Don Quijones
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