The U.S. State Department has warned its citizens about traveling to Cancun and Los Cabos, two of Mexico's most popular tourist destinations, after a surge in violence in those regions.
A travel advisory issued Tuesday upgraded the warnings for two states, Quintana Roo and Baja California Sur, saying turf battles between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime and shootings in which innocent bystanders have been killed.
For years, both regions were largely insulated from the drug war violence that has engulfed other parts of Mexico, but this year they have each seen a major uptick in killings.
There have been deadly gun battles in downtown Cancun, and in January, five people were killed at a nightclub in nearby Playa del Carmen. In Los Cabos, a municipality on the Pacific Coast that includes the cities of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, three people were shot to death this month at the entrance to a popular beach.
The travel warning could deliver a major blow to Mexico's $20-billion-a-year tourism industry, which represents about 7% of the country's gross domestic product.
"This is a very bad news for Mexico," said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, director for the Center for U.S.-Mexican studies at UC San Diego, who said recent growth in Mexico's tourism industry has been a rare bright spot in an economy that quaked after President Trump's threats to tear up free trade agreements and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the rapid increase in development, especially in Los Cabos, may have helped contribute to the violence, Fernandez de Castro said, as migrants from around the country came to build new hotel rooms and resorts.
"The growth of Los Cabos has been way too accelerated in the last two years," he said. "It's creating a little bit of social chaos."
The State Department's decision to warn residents about travel to the resort cities "is a reality check for the booming towns and economy of Mexico," he said.
Mexican officials have gone to lengths to portray the country's beach resorts as family friendly and safe. Violent incidents "are extremely rare among the millions of international tourists who visit Riviera Maya each year, and the entire tourism industry works to ensure the safety and satisfaction of all visitors," reads a statement on the website of the Assn. of Riviera Maya Hotels.
But 10 years into the country's military-led drug war, violence is surging across the nation. This year, Mexico is on track to record more homicides than in any year in the last two decades.
Rising demand for heroin in the U.S. and power struggles among the country's top drug cartels, authorities say, have led to an increase in killings in 27 of Mexico's 32 states.
In Quintana Roo, the state where Cancun is located, 169 killings were reported from January to July, more than twice as many as during the same period last year.
In Baja California Sur, home to Los Cabos and Cabo San Lucas, 232 slayings have been reported this year, nearly four times as many as during the same period last year.
Although tourism from the U.S. dropped off about five years ago during another period of high violence in Mexico, it has substantially recovered, with the number of American visitors increasing 12% from 2015 to 2016, according to the World Tourism Organization. Mexico recently surpassed Turkey to become the eighth most popular travel destination in the world, drawing 35 million international visitors last year.
Tourism officials in the Riviera Maya, the long stretch of Caribbean coastline that includes Cancun as well as Playa del Carmen and Tulum, have already been on the defensive this year after reports that a young woman died after drinking tainted alcohol at a resort.
The State Department also issued a warning in response to those reports, cautioning vacationers to drink alcohol in moderation and seek medical help if they begin to feel ill.
Cecilia Sanchez in The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.
4:05 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments and details about the violence.