MEXICO CITY – Despite economic crisis abroad, drug violence at home and U.S. government warnings against travel south of the border, Mexico saw an uptick in tourism in 2011.
Mexico welcomed 190 million tourists in 2011, surpassing the 2008 record of 185.7 million visitors – the year previously considered "the most important in the sector’s history," according to a statement from the Secretary of Tourism, or Sectur. The number of tourists last year rose 3.7 percent from 2010.
With the U.S. economy in the doldrums, and the European debt crisis dragging on, Mexico has increasingly targeted visitors from up-and-coming economies in Latin America and Asia. The number of tourists from Brazil jumped by two-thirds in 2011, the number of Peruvian visitors rose 37 percent, while visitors from Russia and China rose 55 percent and 30 percent, respectively according to Sectur.
Those who came spent more. International tourists spent an average of $157.70 during their stay, a 7 percent increase from the prior year, which was also a record for spending.
But American travelers – at least to Cancun and the Riviera Maya – opted for economy. Tourist groups (a measure of 2.7 tourists on average) spent just $300 total for a seven-day vacation, according to Cancun-based Marketing Consultants. By comparison, Brazilian and Argentine groups spent roughly $600 on average.
More often than not, Americans didn't leave their hotels and reported not spending much money, said Jaime Herranz, project director for Cancun and the Mayan Riviera. Marketing Consultants surveys visitors at airports upon their departure.
"They didn’t spend in restaurants, in nightclubs or on shopping," he said, adding that, by contrast, "Mexicans and South Americans spend like crazy."
The U.S. State Department updated its travel warning for Mexico earlier this month, which recommends deferring "non-essential travel" to more than half of Mexican states because of drug violence. While there is no warning for popular beach destinations such as Puerto Vallarta, Cancun and the Mayan Riviera, the warning recommends exercising caution in the beach towns of Mazatlan and Puerto Peñasco and port cities of Veracruz and Acapulco – where drug-related murders, criminal highway roadblocks and violence have been on the increase.
More than 47,000 people have died in drug-related violence since December 2006 when President Felipe Calderón launched a war on criminal organizations. The death toll, reported by Mexico’s attorney general's office, covers the period through September 2011.
Mexico Interior Secretary Alejandro Poiré characterized the State Department's travel warnings as "ridiculous" in a press conference this week.
"It seems to me frankly out of proportion," Poiré said, adding that "these alerts overstate or misstate the standards and security situation that exists in our country."
Ellen and Garrett Smith of Atlanta each made a trip to Cancun last year for their respective bachelorette and bachelor parties before they married. And while both took reasonable precautions, neither was worried about safety, they said; they didn't hold back on spending, either.
The women took taxis sponsored by the resort to stay safe, Ellen said, and they spent money at bars, restaurants and on souvenirs. Garrett said he and his friends also dined out, drank at bars and even chartered a boat to go snorkeling in the clear waters of the Caribbean.
"It was a quick, out-of-the-country, tropical place to visit for a fairly short vacation getaway," Garrett said. "As long as you don’t venture off alone at night or put yourself in unsafe situations or places, it seems fairly safe there."
Photo: Flickr/Esparta Palma