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Mexico Striving to Revive Tourism Amidst Drug Lord Wars Killing Bystanders

By Tim Devaney, The Washington TimesMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Aug. 01, 2011--For many Americans, vacationing in Mexico doesn't have the same appeal it used to.

Not after drug lords have killed thousands of bystanders in recent years. Or after the warning the U.S. State Department issued against traveling to that country during the Fourth of July weekend. It is just not a risk worth taking for many travelers.

So it's no surprise American tourists have cut back on trips to Mexico, according to statistics from that country's tourism department. The number of U.S. travelers going there is down 2 percent this year, and those who still go are staying one less day and spending about 20 percent to 30 percent less on their vacations.

That's why Gloria Guevara, Mexico's tourism secretary, is in the United States, campaigning for more visitors from the north. She is visiting New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., as she tries to win back American travelers for her country. Right now, tourism makes up 9 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Mexico's goal is to go from the world's 10th-most-popular tourism destination to a top five spot by 2018.

"We believe that we can do better," she said. "Once you go and try it, and you like it, the next time that you hear Mexico, you will know better."

To reach that goal, Mexico is promoting its heritage as a tourism attraction. It is advertising Mayan history, adventure-travel opportunities such as swimming with whale sharks, and the country's famous cuisine.

"You will try some things here that you cannot find anywhere else," Ms. Guevara said.

Still, the U.S. remains Mexico's leading tourism customer. Americans represent 60 percent of the nation's 22.4 million tourists each year. And that is why Ms. Guevara is here, campaigning for more tourists to visit Mexico. She blames the recent decline in American tourists mostly on the current state of the U.S. economy.

But as fewer Americans vacation in Mexico, the country to the south is also trying to diversify its tourism industry so it doesn't take another big hit in the future.

"When the U.S. had big troubles, we saw an impact and suffered big time," Ms. Guevara said. "But one of the strategies is to diversify, and we're making a lot of progress."

Mexico is promoting itself around the world as a top tourism destination. So far this year, Russia has sent 60 percent more tourists there than it did at the same point in 2010. Tourists from Brazil are up 46 percent from last year, and China is up 34 percent. A number of other countries, such as France, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany, are sending more tourists Mexico's way, as well.

"We see other nationalities," she said. "We have seen the number of Brazilians, Russians, Chinese that come to Mexico has increased. And they're spending much more."

Ms. Guevara decried the notion that Mexico is too dangerous to vacation in.

"When we're talking about the U.S., when something happens in a specific destination, we never say, 'the U.S.' We say, 'Last week, there was a shooting in California,' and we say exactly where. We talk about L.A., we talk about New York, we talk about Washington. Very, very specific.

"Unfortunately, when people talk about Mexico, they don't say, 'Something happened in this small town, in this state, in the middle of nowhere,' " she added. "They say, 'Mexico.' Well, Mexico is a pretty large country, so we're trying to put things in context."

She went on to explain that only 80 of Mexico's 2,500 counties pose a danger to tourists. "But those points are very far away from the tourist destinations," she said. "If something happens in L.A., does that mean that I cannot come to Washington? Of course not."

She also explained that the Mexican drug lords who are causing tourism problems are not targeting American citizens.

"The crime is cartels against cartels, drug dealers against drug dealers," she said. "Nothing against regular citizens, nothing against tourists. They don't care about them."


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