World

Mexico scrambles as violence threatens tourism zones

MEXICO CITY — You might be hard-pressed to find the word "Mexico" in some of the advertising for tourist resorts in Mexico.

Brands like "Riviera Maya" often eclipse the name of the country where those lush beaches are located.

As deadly violence that has haunted Mexico for years threatens tourist zones, government officials and trade executives are scrambling for ways to minimize damage to an industry that is a top income-earner and employer.

The rapes last week of six Spanish women vacationing in Acapulco have heightened fear and called into question the government's ability to control crime and attract foreign visitors. It didn't help that about the same time, Mexico's minister of tourism was in, of all places, Spain, attempting to promote tourism. "This is Mexico's moment," was her theme.

Despite its many problems, including a flu epidemic in 2009, beach-ravaging storms and the global economic crisis — in addition to the violence that has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives since December 2006 — Mexico has managed to sustain a fairly robust tourism industry. The government that left office Dec. 1 said it had increased the number of international visitors during its six-year term by more than 20% from the previous six years.

But revenue has yet to rebound to the all-time high of nearly $13.4 billion reached in 2008, according to statistics published by the Tourism Ministry. Last year, the total was estimated at a little more than $11 billion, although final numbers were not available. Tourism is Mexico's third top source of income, after oil and remittances.

The number of tourists from the United States, by far the largest single source, has slipped slightly; but Mexico has attempted to make up for that by focusing on countries like Russia and China.

Perhaps most telling is that the Americans who still come are traveling to a shrinking vacationland.

Cruise lines eliminated Mazatlan as a port of call about two years ago, according to industry specialists. Long a cosmopolitan port with wide beaches and a picturesque historic center, and a resort favored by Ronald Reagan, Mazatlan is in the state of Sinaloa, home to Mexico's largest drug cartel. Rival gangs are now battling for control of the city, with shootouts and other violence escalating.

"We went from half a million visitors from cruise ships annually, to zero. Practically overnight," said Gabriel Tostado Bastidas, a Mazatlan native and director in Mexico of Hospitality Advance International, an industry consulting firm. "It has been devastating."

Similarly, Acapulco, once the crowning jewel of Mexico's Pacific coast, romping ground for the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis Presley, lost its international glory years ago. Local officials boasted 98% hotel occupancy over the Christmas holiday, but nearly all the visitors were Mexicans.

Ports still frequented by cruise ships include Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun (aka the Riviera Maya), all still considered relatively safe. Same with the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula, which got a huge tourism boost last year thanks to rather hyped predictions of the end of the world according to the Maya calendar.

Mexico "is a very hard sell," said Chris DeRose, president of First Travel of California, an agency based in Villa Park. "The violence is scaring people. Unreasonably, in my opinion.... But you can't force them."

Even before the attacks last week, the U.S. State Department travel warning on Mexico cautioned visitors to Acapulco not to venture more than two blocks inland from the coastal Miguel Aleman highway; essentially: Avoid the city.

The rapes took place in a bungalow rented by six Spanish men, six Spanish women and a Mexican woman, in the area deemed safe, right on the beach, just a few miles south of the so-called Diamond Zone, Acapulco's newest and most luxurious enclave.

Authorities say that about 2 a.m. Monday, at least five hooded gunmen seized the men, who were sitting outside the bungalow, tied them up with phone cords and bathing suit straps and then entered the bedrooms and raped the Spanish women. The Mexican was spared. The ordeal lasted several hours. As of Saturday, no arrests had been made.

Violent aggression against foreign tourists in Mexico is not common, but industry analysts said it behooved Mexican authorities to get ahead of the story and, in publicity campaigns, confront the issue while reassuring potential visitors.

"The transparency approach is much more effective" than ignoring or hiding the reality, said Stephen Barth, professor of hospitality law at the University of Houston and founder of the website hospitalitylawyer.com.

It could be urgent. Spring break looms. Cesar Martinez, whose Texas-based MAS Consulting Group has worked with local Mexican governments on image issues, noted that the Texas Department of Public Safety would be issuing its annual travel advisory in the coming weeks. Last year, the department warned Texas college students not to travel south of the border for spring break. At all.

Experts cited the example of Colombia. For decades, it was a nation associated with vicious drug-war violence, an ingrained image that lasted even after a measure of peace was restored. Eventually, Colombian promoters hit upon a winning ad campaign, incorporating the word "danger" in spots, saying, "The only danger is you won't want to leave."

Mexico appears to have a lot to learn about such marketing strategies. Acapulco officials, for example, have done little to help their case, making statements that seemed insensitive or ham-handed.

At first, Acapulco Mayor Luis Walton condemned the attacks that he said would hurt the city's image. Then he seemed dismissive, saying rapes like this happen all over the world.

He was quickly forced to apologize, then tearfully accused President Enrique Peña Nieto (who reportedly vacationed in Acapulco over Christmas) of ignoring his city's plight. Leadership of Peña Nieto's political party scolded Walton, but Peña Nieto was swift to order federal authorities to join the investigation. (Normally, because rape is a crime that violates state law, the case would remain exclusively in the hands of local authorities.)

In a sense, Walton may have been taking his cue from Peña Nieto, whose policy since taking office Dec. 1 has been to downplay violence in hope of diverting public attention to more positive developments.

The top prosecutor for Guerrero, the state where Acapulco is located, fanned flames — and injected xenophobia into the equation — by stating that the Mexican victim was spared rape precisely because of her nationality.

Rival drug gangs are battling for control of Acapulco and Guerrero drug routes and markets, and there is also a huge wave of not-necessarily-related crime. Homicides increased in Acapulco in 2011 (the last year for which official statistics are available) by about 125%, a larger uptick than anywhere else in Mexico. A nongovernmental group that studies violence in Mexico, the Citizens' Council for Public Security and Penal Justice, said Acapulco in 2012 became the second-deadliest city among the 50 cities in the world that it ranks, with 143 homicides per 100,000 residents.

After last week's assault, the Mexican press revealed that the same stretch of Acapulco beach has seen a string of home invasions, robberies and sexual attacks since November. Eight suspects, including several lifeguards, were arrested last month; they have maintained their innocence.

The news came in stark contrast to official insistence that the assaults on the Spaniards were an isolated incident.

"The situation in Acapulco," said consultant Barth, "has really risen the stakes."

wilkinson@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Fausset contributed to this report.

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