In a surprising turnabout, international tourism to Mexico showed a sharp increase this summer — a sign that tourists may be putting aside worries about the economy and fears of drug-related violence, analysts say.
Foreign visitors arriving by air to Mexico jumped to 7.1 million in the first eight months of the year — up nearly 20% from the same period in 2009 — with most visitors coming from the U.S. and Canada, according to Mexican tourism officials.
The biggest rise came in July, when tourist numbers grew 27.5% over the same month last year.
The increase came in spite of a rash of drug-related violence and kidnappings, primarily along the border, and the August bankruptcy of Mexicana Airlines, the nation's largest air carrier.
The growth in tourism has been focused primarily in Mexican beach resort towns that have not experienced much of the violence.
In the first eight months of 2010, 7.1 million foreign travelers flew to Mexico, up 19.2% from the same period last year. Of those visitors, 4.33 million were from the U.S., 1.3 million from Canada and 200,513 from Spain, according to Mexican tourism officials.
The latest numbers are a significant increase from 2009, when international tourism to Mexico dropped dramatically after the outbreak of the H1N1 virus, or swine flu. But compared with 2008, international travel to Mexico is up only 6%.
Still, analysts say, the latest jump in visitors suggests that U.S. travelers feel more confident about spending on travel again and see Mexico as a good bargain for vacations.
"Memories of last year have started to fade," said Anthony Concil, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Assn., a trade group for the world's airlines.
The sharp increase in visitors to Mexico is also significant because Concil and other analysts have predicted only modest growth in travel worldwide. International air travel, for example, was up 6% in August compared with a year earlier, according to the International Air Transport Assn.
Hawaii has also seen tourism begin to rebound lately, but not enough to overcome the steep drop-off it suffered in 2009. In August, total arrivals by air to Hawaii were up about 11% from the same month last year, marking the ninth consecutive month of growth.
Mexican tourism officials attribute Mexico's tourist increase to a marketing campaign that kicked off in July, with the tagline "Mexico, the place you thought you knew."
"We have had all of these challenges, but we are in the right track," said Alfonso Sumano, regional director for the Mexico Tourism Board for the Americas.
Local travel agents say the growth in tourists' interest in Mexico comes from a pent-up demand to travel.
"I think there's a perception is that it's a good deal," said Carol McConnell, founder of Around the Globe Travel in Huntington Beach. "But it's mostly about being where the water and the weather is really nice."
Jack E. Richards, president of Pleasant Holidays, a Westlake Village travel agency that specializes in vacations to Mexico, agrees. "The all-inclusive resorts offer exceptional value for the vacation dollar, which is still important to American travelers as they emerge from the economic recession," he said.
While reports of drug-related killings and kidnappings continue along the border, most international tourists are staying clear of that area, visiting beach resort towns instead, Sumano said.
The number of visitors to Cancun, the easternmost coastal city, jumped nearly 31% in August compared with a year earlier; tourism to Los Cabos, on the southern tip of Baja California, increased 30%, according to Mexico tourism officials.
Southern California travel agents say U.S. tourists don't seem too concerned about drug violence because they know to stay far from the border. "As long as you stay in the resort areas, you'll have no problem," McConnell said.
And several Mexican and U.S. airlines have stepped in to fill in the void left by Mexicana Airlines, Sumano said.
"We would like to spread the word," he said. "The resorts are ready for the visitors."