Hotel occupancy rates in Cancun, Mexico, tumbled to 57.4% last year from… (Elizabeth Ruiz, EPA )
Mexican President Felipe Calderon is touting 2011 as the year of tourism, and the Mexico Tourism Board is spending millions of dollars plastering Southland billboards with images of the Great Pyramid of Cholula and underwater trees.
But the nation's deadly drug wars have led the U.S. government to widen its travel warnings in the last few weeks, throwing a wrench into Mexico's effort to attract foreign visitors.
Nearly half of all available rooms in 70 major resort centers have been vacant this year, except for the Easter crowd that nearly filled the hotels for a few days, according to the tourism board.
Two days before the holiday, the State Department added four Mexican states to its list of areas to avoid. It now urges U.S. travelers — the bulk of Mexico's tourist economy — to steer clear of all or parts of 10 Mexican states, including most of the border region and popular vacation sites such as Acapulco and Monterrey.
"What's disconcerting is that these advisories are painting an entire country with a broad brush," said Terry Denton, president of the Fort Worth, Texas, branch of the Travel Leaders agency. "It just reinforces the unfortunate impression that all of Mexico is not a safe destination."
Travelers such as Realtor David Clink of Morgan Hill, Calif., aren't worried enough to stay away, although he said he would be more alert as he and his family vacation this week in Cabo San Lucas.
"We've followed what's been going on, but we've always felt safe there," he said.
Some U.S. travel agents and Mexican officials believe news about the violence has been overblown.
"Bad things can happen anywhere," said Rita Wilcox of Rocky Point Reservations travel agency in Phoenix. "But people are afraid, so even those who have the money to go might not. It's affected every business down there tremendously."
In the Sea of Cortez resort city of Puerto Penasco, known as Rocky Point, visitor traffic has plunged 30% in the last year, Wilcox said.
Nearly every hotel in the area — about 60 miles from the Arizona border — is offering free nights and special amenities to attract guests after an unexpectedly sparse spring break crowd, she said.
In Acapulco, the occupancy rate at major resorts slid 7 percentage points to 38.4% last year from 2008. In that period, Cancun's rate tumbled to 57.4% from 72.1%, according to the Mexico Tourism Board. Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Maya have seen similar declines.
In the same period, bookings at the popular Hotel Pueblo Amigo Plaza & Casino in Tijuana fell more than 15 percentage points, and now are hovering around 51%, manager Gerardo Delgado said.
Overall, the number of international visitors has fallen 13% to 79.8 million last year from 91.5 million in 2008, according to Banco de Mexico. And the trend isn't looking any better this year: In January, 3.8 million day-trippers crossed the U.S. border into Mexico, down 16% from the same month last year.
Despite the danger, Mexico remains by far the top travel destination for Americans, said Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete, chief operating officer of the tourism board. Last year, about three-quarters of the 22 million visitors came from the United States or Canada.
"It's important that this doesn't get out of context," he said. "Compared to the scale of our tourism industry and the volume of people we receive year after year, the number of incidents is very minimal."
In such difficult times, tourism this year still is expected to account for 13% of Mexico's gross domestic product — the value of all goods and services produced — and nearly 15% of domestic jobs, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.
At its peak in 2003, the country depended on travelers for about 16% of its GDP and close to 19% of employment.
With tourism providing Mexico its third largest source of revenue, hotel operators, tour guides and travel agencies now bemoan the U.S. alerts as yet another blow to an industry battered in recent years by a swine flu outbreak, the recession and the increasingly bold cartel activities.
It was the violence that prompted the State Department advisory as well as a separate warning from the Texas Department of Public Safety urging spring break vacationers to give Mexico a wide berth.
As lawlessness escalated last year, 111 Americans were killed south of the border, compared with just 35 in 2007, authorities said. Others have been kidnapped from hotels, carjacked at gunpoint and targeted for extortion.
The State Department has urged travelers to avoid the states of Tamaulipas and Michoacan and parts of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Sinaloa, Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and Jalisco.
Travel agencies such as AAA said bookings are down. Since January, major cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, Disney and Norwegian have cut Mexican ports. A few study-abroad programs, including one from Whittier Law School, canceled summer sessions in the country.
But most areas, tourism officials said, are safe.