|Mexico's multibillion-dollar tourism industry is getting mixed signals. Economic recovery in the U.S. means more Americans are planning trips south of the border. But high-profile crimes and an overall perception of widespread violence have apparently hurt Mexico's reputation as an international travel spot. That's particularly damaging because tourism is the country's third-largest source of foreign income after petroleum and overseas remittances.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Mexico expects the number of foreign visitors it hosted in 2012 to reach a record 24.7 million. But the U.N. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) says Mexico may soon fall from its coveted position among the world's top 10 tourist destinations.
Mexican government data quoted by the Associated Press says the number of cruise ships visiting Mexico last year fell by 3%, compared to a year earlier -- and by more than 15% for the past two years. Tourism along the country's northern border region is also down significantly, off 5.3% in 2012.
Mexican tourism officials say they cannot verify the UNWTO figures, but some travel industry analysts believe tourists are being scared off by the seemingly constant reports of violence in the country.
Consider these headline-grabbing incidents: Last spring, 22 passengers from a Carnival (CCL) cruise ship were robbed at gunpoint on a sightseeing bus outside the Pacific Coast town of Puerto Vallarta. Six Spanish tourists were raped by masked gunmen last month in the resort of Acapulco, which prompted the Spanish government to issue a travel alert for Mexico. And just last week, at least seven people were killed in a shooting at a bar on the outskirts of the Cancún resort area on the eastern Yucatán peninsula.
"It doesn't matter if Mexico is safe or not because the perception is they are not," Carl Winston, director of the school of hospitality and tourism at San Diego State University, told the LA Times in February.
The U.S. State Department still has a travel warning on its website for American citizens planning trips to Mexico. But Commerce Department figures say Mexico remains the top international destination for U.S. tourists.
And the Dallas Morning News reports hotel occupancy rates are currently at 87% to 90% along the "Mayan Rivera" -- as U.S. college students pour into the Yucatán peninsula area around Cancún for spring break festivities.
"History has played out, and there haven't been a lot of tourists caught up in the unfortunate, tragic events, especially not here," James Batt, a Texas native and current operations manager of a luxury resort near Cancún, told the newspaper. "As the Dow Jones goes up, so does tourism. We’re seeing that now. I also think more tourists in general, and particularly Texans, are feeling comfortable traveling to Mexico again."