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Resort Takes Steps to Ensure Safety of Tourists : Puerto Vallarta Fights Critics on Crime

Times Staff Writer

Just a few miles up the beach, amid the vines and tangled growth of encroaching jungle, visitors can still wander around the crumbling remnants of the movie set used in the 1964 film “The Night of the Iguana.”

Puerto Vallarta was just another small, isolated community on Mexico’s West Coast two decades ago when Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and director John Huston walked around its cobblestoned streets.

Some of the glamour and publicity they attracted rubbed off on the fishing village, touching off a boom that transformed Puerto Vallarta into a spectacular tourist haven. In 1984, it lured more than 1.5 million visitors, many of them Americans, to its wide beaches.

Vallarta, as the natives call it, now boasts all the features of a modern international resort. There are more than 40 hotels, 9,000 hotel rooms, dozens of restaurants with names like Maxim’s and El Hamburger--and a rising crime rate.

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In the last six months, 108 “violent crimes” involving physical attack or weapons were reported to the U.S. Consular Agency here, either by resident or visiting Americans. It is a number that has aroused alarm in some quarters.

Because of these crime statistics, the U.S. House of Representatives on May 8 approved a formal advisory warning Americans that they face possible danger if they travel to the Mexican state of Jalisco, where Puerto Vallarta is located. The U.S. Senate, however, has taken no action so far.

The House resolution has aroused bitter criticism in Mexico, where it is viewed as part of a campaign to embarrass and discredit the country and its institutions.

Foreign Exchange Needed

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For Mexico, a nation desperately in need of foreign capital, the tourist problem is not merely a matter of national pride but one of dollars and cents. In 1984, the country earned $1.95 billion in tourist revenues, and the forecast for 1985 was $2.2 billion.

In April, however, tourism officials declared that what they call “the campaign against Mexico” had resulted in a serious decline in the number of foreign visitors and that the country would be lucky to reach the revenue levels attained in 1984.

The U.S. State Department opposes the congressional advisory because it fears there is little to gain except more ill will from the Mexican government and, possibly, a halt in efforts to improve security for visitors.

It was the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City that first suggested that crimes against Americans were showing a worrisome increase, but the concern of American diplomats seems to have abated.

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“We think any American going to Puerto Vallarta should be aware that there have been problems in the past,” said Lee Johnson, a spokesman for the embassy. “But if you exercise caution and common sense, you should be all right.”

Gavin Opposes Advisory

U.S. Ambassador John Gavin has said he believes Americans should be told of the crime problem in Puerto Vallarta in the same way that foreigners visiting New York City should be warned about walking around Central Park at night. Still, he opposes a formal advisory.

“We have to look at the overall relationship between the two countries,” Johnson said. “The State Department has been saying we don’t think the conditions warrant the issuance of an advisory at this time.”

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According to Jenny McGill, the U.S. consular agent here and a 12-year resident of Puerto Vallarta, the problems began last fall when the number of reported crimes seemed to be increasing, although there was little statistical basis upon which to establish a trend.

“We started keeping a closer record around that time,” she said during an interview. “We have kept better records in the past six months than we have in previous years.”

As a result, it is impossible to say with certainty that the criminal situation affecting Americans in Puerto Vallarta has markedly worsened.

‘Yellow Journalism’ Seen

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“We think we have been victims of an excess of yellow journalism,” complained Gabriel Igartua, the owner of the Las Palmas hotel and president of the local hotel owners’ association.

“See for yourself,” he said, pointing out the window. “This is not El Salvador. This is one of the safest cities I have ever been in, and that includes cities in the United States.”

The police chief, Jose Orozco Santillan, also complained about what is routinely called “the campaign against Mexico,” saying that Puerto Vallarta’s reputation is being unjustly besmirched.

He declared that many of the victims were, in effect, asking for trouble by being careless.

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“It may seem very romantic for a young couple to go strolling on the beach by themselves in the moonlight,” he said, “but it is also dangerous.”

Another tourist official added: “You have to use common sense. If you’re alone on the beach at night, if you’re drunk, if you go to the market dressed in a bikini and arouse attention--in all these cases, you expose yourself to some degree of risk. We are not angels, let’s face it.”

Surveillance Increased

Despite the contention that Puerto Vallarta’s crime problem has been exaggerated, the police department is taking steps to improve its surveillance capacity and its ability to respond quickly to complaints of crimes in progress.

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In the last few months, the number of patrol cars has increased to 40 from four, and the number of active duty policemen has risen to 200 from 75 in 1983, according to the police chief.

U.S. officials credit the local force with building several cinder-block police booths in various parts of town in an effort to ward off potential criminals.

“They have adopted a very high profile since about Easter Week,” McGill said. “It has been very encouraging.”

Throughout May, the consular agency received only two reports of violent crimes against Americans, both armed robberies.

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Situation Improved

“As far as I am concerned, that is a tremendous improvement over the last six months,” McGill said. “I hate to say it, but I think all the fuss finally got the attention of someone.”

Johnson, the U.S. Embassy spokesman, said, “We think they (the Mexican authorities) are really trying.”

If the extent of the crime wave has been exaggerated, as the Mexicans officials claim, so has the effect of public warnings about travel to Puerto Vallarta. Local hotel officials have complained loudly about low occupancy rates in the city’s 9,028 hotel rooms, but this fails to take into account Puerto Vallarta’s increasing hotel space.

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In the last year, the number of rooms has increased by 700, and more hotels are under construction.

The number of passengers flying to Mexico from Los Angeles on Mexicana Airlines during the first four months of 1985 increased by 5% over the same period in 1984, and Puerto Vallarta remains the number one destination on Mexico’s West Coast.


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