MEXICO CITY -– When New Yorkers Vimal Vora and Ellen Goldstein decided to tie the knot, they looked south for a wedding destination.
They considered the Caribbean and Puerto Rico but settled on Mexico –- despite the country's tarnished reputation as a haven for drug cartels.
"Stories become data for people," Vora said. "Mexico may be less safe on average than America but when you look at Playa del Carmen" –- on the Mayan Riviera -– "it's as safe as anywhere. My intuition was that the news was more unsafe than the reality in Mexico."
About a quarter of engaged U.S. couples plan a destination wedding –- up 20 percent over two years -– and the vast majority set their sights on just three destinations: the Caribbean, Mexico and Hawaii. Mexico wants to capture a greater number of those ceremonies as the country strives to reposition itself in American minds as a land of sunshine, sand and palm trees –- not of brutal drug violence.
Overall tourism to Mexico slowed last year, but the destination wedding segment in Mexico is booming, said Rebeca Gonzalez, wedding sales manager with Velas Resorts, which owns four properties in Puerto Vallarta and the Mayan Riviera that hosted some 200 weddings last year, 80 percent of them international couples.
Mexico grabbed another 1 percent of the destination wedding market between 2010 and 2011, according to the national tourism board; in 2008, the country unseated Hawaii as the No. 2 destination for exchanging vows.
"There has definitely been an increase in the culture of getting married on the beach," she said, noting that many couples look to Mexico to reduce costs or create a smaller, more intimate event.
The drug violence continues unabated in many regions, but Mexico is a big country and most popular tourist destinations have been largely unaffected by six years of the government’s assault on organized crime.
And travelers' security concerns seem to be fading.
"The wave of sensationalist journalism in which media constantly broadcast something negative about Mexico is passing," Gonzalez said. "What really concerns clients is the price, the climate, whether a date is available. People are becoming less afraid to travel in Mexico."
Mexico's new government is trying to polish the country's image abroad. Tourism Secretary Claudia Ruiz Massieu recently said the agency is considering creating a special police force in top tourist destinations, training police in foreign languages and setting up special medical services for visitors.
Meanwhile, the national tourism promotion board is planning a marketing campaign specifically targeting American lovebirds in what it terms "the romance segment," currently worth $28 billion annually. (Destination weddings generate about $18 billion of that income, honeymoons the rest.)
Drug violence has hurt sectors of Mexico's tourism industry, deterring tourism in the border region and at cruise ship docking points. Last year the number of visitors crossing Mexico's borders dropped 5.3 percent, while the number of cruise ship passengers stopping over fell 3 percent, according to the tourism agency. Together those declines pushed down overall tourism to the country 1.2 percent.
The health of Mexico's tourism industry is critical to the economy, given that it contributes roughly 9 percent of the gross domestic product and generates 2.5 million direct jobs that pay about 30 percent more than the average national wage.
Adriana and Justin Boudreaux planned their 2010 wedding in Mazatlan on Mexico's Pacific coast. Adriana Boudreaux said her Mexican roots, the many choices of churches as well as the low cost of flowers, food and flights helped play into the Houston couple's decision.
Many of their more than 60 guests had never been to Mexico.
"I think the overall reaction was, 'Wow, I’ve never been to a wedding like this,'" she said. "It was a lot of work, but it was worth it. I think it turned out to be the perfect wedding."