Travel experts say that as spring break approaches, a State Department warning against visiting Playa del Carmen in Mexico in light of an unspecified security threat is diverting tourists from the popular resort area.
“Passengers are definitely steering away and concerned about the destination,” said Olga Ramudo, CEO of Express Travel in Coral Gables, Fla.
But the experts add that Mexico is a large country with many large destinations, such as Puerto Vallarta or Huatulco, that tourists could choose instead.
“Specifically related to Playa del Carmen, I would probably follow the State Department’s alert and suggestion, and stay away for a while,” said Eric Olson, senior advisor to the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center and deputy director of the Latin American Program. “But there are tons of other places, wonderful places, to vacation in Mexico.”
The Mexico Tourism Board issued a statement acknowledging the U.S.'s right to warn travelers. But the board called the State Department warning “counterproductive” and said Playa del Carmen is safe for travelers, other than a recent ferry explosion.
“Messages like this, which imply safety issues without any basis in fact, are counterproductive to the goal of informing and educating travelers to Mexico and we strongly disagree with both this approach and the contents of this security message,” the board said. “Playa del Carmen is the largest destination in the Riviera Maya, and is surrounded by beautiful caves and pristine cenotes, eco parks like Xcaret, wonderful resorts, beach clubs, boutique hotels, and trendy shops with international brands.”
The tourism board said steps the Mexico government and tourism industry have taken to ensure safety and security led to growth during the last five years in a row. Playa del Carmen continues to be one of Mexico’s most popular destinations for international travelers, with an 18.3% growth last year from 2016.
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The State Department warning amplifies alarms about travel to Mexico. An investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which is part of the USA TODAY Network, has found more than 150 travelers have become sick, seriously injured — and in some cases have died — after drinking small and moderate amounts of alcohol at all-inclusive resorts in the country.
Travelers reported, some as recently as last week, being sexually assaulted, beaten, robbed, taken to jail and mistreated at local hospitals. The Journal Sentinel investigation exposed how travelers encounter indifferent — at times hostile — resort workers, police and hospital staff.
While the state department, members of Congress — both Republican and Democrat — as well as travel websites and Mexican authorities vow they are making changes and doing what they can to ensure the safety of travelers, their slow, bureaucratic efforts have yet to prevent the harms, the Journal Sentinel found.
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The State Department announced Wednesday that the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City received information about a security threat in Playa del Carmen. Government employees were prohibited from traveling to the resort community and tourists were urged to “be aware of your surroundings and exercise caution.”
The move came after the Feb. 21 explosion on the ferry that links Playa del Carmen with the town of Cozumel. The incident injured 25 people, including two Americans.
On March 1, undetonated explosive devices were found by Mexico law enforcement on another tourist ferry. Both incidents are still under investigation.
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Olson noted the warning doesn’t prohibit travel, but said “it’s a little bit hot now” in the region around Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Cozumel.
“It’s also important to underscore that none of the statements from the State Department suggested that people from the U.S. are being targeted specifically, like they may be in Afghanistan or Iraq,” Olson said.
Travel experts say tourists should plan to stay safe, rather than just envision sandy beaches and sunsets.
“Many tourists assume that cartel violence and other criminal activity is removed from the beaches of the coastal resorts, but this simply isn't true,” Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis for Stratfor, wrote in a recent blog post about the safety of spring break in Mexico.
The State Department simplified its travel warnings in January, divided into four categories. Countries are now labeled Level 1 for taking normal precautions, Level 2 for using increased caution, Level 3 urging travelers to reconsider a trip and Level 4 for recommending against travel at that time. Specific threats will be described with summaries such as C for crime, T for terrorism and U for civil unrest.
Mexico is a rare country with multiple warnings. The overall rating is Level 2, but five of the country’s states – Colima, Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas – carry “do not travel” warnings because of violent crime and gang activity, with killings, kidnappings and trafficking in drugs and humans.
Olson said tourist areas often serve as magnets for drugs and prostitution, and the violence around Playa del Carmen could be the result of local criminal organizations battling for the market.
But just as there might be violence in Detroit or Chicago or New Orleans, Olson said those incidents shouldn’t discourage tourist visits elsewhere across the U.S.
“There are highly concentrated areas of high violence,” Olson said. “But that’s no reason you can’t go to Mexico. It’s an enormous country and there are wonderful places to vacation.”
Contributing: Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.