by Dawn Gilbertson
The Republic | azcentral.com
A brazen gunpoint robbery of 22 tourists in Puerto Vallarta last week and an updated U.S. government travel warning have thrust Mexico travel safety back into the spotlight and left Arizonans wondering about trips to Rocky Point.
The back-to-back events threaten to hurt spring-break bookings just as tourism businesses were optimistic that, after several rough years due to the weak economy, swine flu and drug-related violence, this would be the year Mexico rebounded. Instead, the fallout has begun.
On Feb. 23, 22 Carnival Cruise Lines passengers on a bus tour were robbed by a gunman. Carnival responded by canceling the tour indefinitely, and some industry watchers wonder if the company might stop visits to the Pacific Coast city of Puerto Vallarta entirely. So far, Carnival has not removed the city from its itinerary, nor have the Princess and Disney lines.
A Tempe travel agency canceled its annual spring-break bus trips to Rocky Point, also known as Puerto Peñasco, because of customer cancellations after the State Department updated its Mexico travel warning on Feb. 8.
The warning urges travelers to avoid several areas in Mexico, especially near the U.S. border, and to use caution when traveling to select tourist destinations, including the coastal town of Rocky Point, a hot spot for college students because it is within easy driving distance of Tucson and Phoenix.
For the first time, the State Department listed Mexican destinations for which it has not issued travel warnings to indicate that they are safe, including Cancun, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta.
The new government warning, which replaced one issued days before Easter last year, was mentioned by the University of Arizona in a memo about spring-break travel that it sent to students this week. Mexico was the only country the university singled out.
“If you choose to travel to Mexico for spring break, I urge you to familiarize yourself with this (State Department) information and the following resources, tips and suggestions to increase your safety,” Dean of Students Keith Humphrey wrote.
The school stopped far short, however, of recommending students not visit Mexico, as it did in 2009, and as Texas law-enforcement officials did last spring break.
Student Body Travel, which has offered spring-break bus trips from Phoenix and Tucson for the past six years, isn’t taking any chances. It announced it was canceling this year’s Rocky Point trips in a Facebook post four days after the updated travel warning.
“We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused, and we hope to see you all next year,” the post said.
Before that, the agency was touting its three- and five-night Rocky Point packages on Facebook and its website and selling Spring Break 2012 T-shirts.
Founder Britton Russell, who last year said spring bookings to Rocky Point were down sharply as a result of negative publicity about Mexico, said business was up from a year earlier until the travel warning on Feb. 8. Cancellations started that day.
“It made a pretty big splash. We had calls coming in, people concerned,” he said.
Russell said it was a tough call to cancel the trip, but the business risks were too great. It would have taken only one high-profile incident to prompt more students to back out, leaving the firm on the hook for reserved hotel rooms, buses and activities.
“This cruise-ship incident could have sparked more cancellations,” he said.
Although Carnival has not announced any itinerary changes to its weeklong Mexican Riviera cruise out of Long Beach, Calif., other cruise lines canceled calls in Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta last year because of various reported crimes in the areas.
Mexican tourism officials have gone on the defensive — again.
Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete, chief operating officer of the Mexico Tourism Board, was in Austin on Monday for previously scheduled meetings about spring break and the travel warning.
His message to travelers: Mexico is safe. He rattles off crime statistics in American cities, including Phoenix, that are worse than in Mexican tourist destinations.
“That was a very rare, unusual and isolated incident,” Lopez-Negrete said of the Carnival incident. “We feel it’s very unfortunate.”
He said the robbery took place outside Puerto Vallarta proper and was the first such incident.
“It should have never happened, but it doesn’t mean people should stop coming to Puerto Vallarta,” he said.
That would be akin to foreign tourists shunning the United States because of deadly school shootings like the one in Ohio on Monday, he said.
“All we ask is reciprocity and that kind of understanding,” he said.
Lopez-Negrete’s advice for travelers headed to Mexico: “You shouldn’t be venturing out to places that are not tourist-friendly. … You have to apply prudence when you travel.”
Russell, of Student Body Travel, emphasized that he still feels Rocky Point is safe — he last visited in January — and encourages people to visit.
“I’m not telling people not to go to Rocky Point,” he said. “I’m just not taking the liability of sending a huge crew down there.”
Greg Searfoss of Fiesta Beach Travel in Ajo, which books Rocky Point vacations throughPuerto-Penasco.com and RockyPointMexico.com, said the government warning and Puerto Vallarta robbery certainly don’t help business.
“Fear is a powerful motivator,” he said, and that is especially true when it comes to college students’ spring-break bookings. “Who wants to see their kid go to Mexico when you’re hearing about travel warnings?”
The good news, Searfoss said, is that Rocky Point bookings this year have been double last year’s depressed levels.
He attributes that to the improving economy, veteran visitors’ comfort level with the travel warnings and an increase in bookings by families. He and his wife, who is from Mexico, are having their daughter’s fifth birthday party in Rocky Point in May.
“Rocky Point is a no-brainer,” he said.
Still, he recognizes the concern about safety in Mexico.
Earlier this year he posted a video on one of his websites featuring interviews with tourists on the beach in Rocky Point, asking if they felt safe in Mexico. He even jokingly asked them, “Have you gotten shot since you’ve been here?”
The latest events haven’t spurred Arizona State University to change its spring-break advice for students. The school is reiterating its usual tips at asu.edu/wellness. It includes links to the State Department website.
“We’ve really stuck with the same thing … which is really promoting that students get good information about wherever it is that they’re traveling,” said Karen Moses, director of ASU Wellness.
ASU is holding its annual Safe Spring Break Send-Off Fairs on its four campuses beginning this week.
The University of Arizona held a Spring Break Safety Fair this week and will offer a spring-break safety program next week.
- 22 tourists robbed in Mexico bus assault (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Study: Miami Top U.S. Spring Break Destination (miami.cbslocal.com)
- Robbery nightmare of 22 Carnival Cruise Line passengers on sightseeing trip to Mexican seaside resort (dailymail.co.uk)