Winter weary Minnesotans are flocking to the southern warmth despite reports of violence in mostly non-tourist areas.
Mexican federal police officers patrols the streets of Acapulco, Mexico, Jan. 28, 2011. Mexican and American officials, crediting American training of the military and what they consider to be an increasingly professional federal police force, says that it has captured more than half of last year's most wanted crime bosses, but a poll by Mexico's national statistics institute shows an increase in those concerned for their safety.
Every year for the past quarter-century, Robert Duckstad has escaped the Minnesota winter blahs with some sunshine, swimming and hikes on the beach at an old-town hotel in Acapulco.
This year, a week before he was scheduled to leave on a month-long trip in January, Mexican authorities found 15 decapitated bodies there, victims of drug cartels.
Duckstad, a semi-retired Minneapolis lawyer, did some research and decided to go to the hotel he knows so well anyway. The cartels "kill each other but they don't bother tourists," he said. "The people are very nice and they treat us right. ... I'm going to keep on going."
Despite horrific violence in some regions of Mexico, tourists aren't staying away, tourism industry executives say. Minnesotans tired of turtlenecks and down jackets are among those still flocking to Mexico.
"Four of the top 10 destinations that we're booking internationally are in Mexico," said Steve Loucks, spokesman for Eden Prairie-based Travel Leaders, which surveyed managers at its 6,000 travel agencies. Three of the top five international spring break destinations listed by Orbitz.com are in Mexico.
AAA Minneapolis says Mexico is still a hot destination for Minnesotans, too.
Last year, 220,000 Minnesotans visited the country, outnumbering tourists from Germany, according to the Mexican consulate office in St. Paul.
Areas that are most popular with foreign tourists -- Cancun, the Mayan Riviera, Playa del Carmen and cruises along the Mexican coasts -- have largely escaped the violence that has plagued regions closer to the U.S. border.
"To say you shouldn't go to Mexico because of all the border violence is like saying, for somebody from Europe, they shouldn't come to Minneapolis because of Detroit," Loucks said. "You have to put things into perspective."
Nearing the end of a long, cold, snowy winter in Collegeville, Minn., that's exactly what St. John's University senior Zach Lauer is doing with a dozen friends. The group talked about a spring break trip to Mexico during most of his undergraduate years. This year, they're heading to an all-inclusive resort in Cancun this month with their sensibilities sharpened. Lauer, who knows Spanish and has studied in South America, said he wouldn't go to a border town like Juarez now, but he doesn't anticipate problems in Cancun.
"I don't envision us going into ... some of the shadier parts of town," he said. "You wouldn't even do that here in the U.S. so why would you do that there?"
Alerts and warnings
The State Department (at www.travel.state.gov) has put out travel alerts or warnings for Mexico over the past couple of years, the latest issued in September. "Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border region and in areas along the major drug trafficking routes," the warning says. The site mentions Acapulco, Mazatlan and Ixtapa among tourist areas that have seen violence.
In Texas, the Department of Public Safety recently warned students against crossing the border to Mexico for spring break.
Last year, Mexico had more than 15,000 drug-related murders, making a total of 34,600 killed over the past four years.
Travel agents say that has made a few travelers wary, especially those who have never been to Mexico.
"Every once in a while someone will say, 'we're just not comfortable going there,'" said Wendy Weigel, vice president of travel for AAA Minneapolis. "Overall, it's a safe country to still visit for tourists."
St. Paul hair cutter Cyd Malecha went with his family to an all-inclusive time share between Cancun and Playa del Carmen last month and found it only about a third full. It seemed safe, he said, and because there were fewer people at the resort's restaurants, salons and attractions, they received "exceptional service ... no waiting to get into anything."
Some tourist areas that were already waning in popularity have been among the hardest hit.
In Mazatlan, a Canadian tourist caught in gun crossfire took a shot in the leg in January. Some cruise ships stopped docking there. In Acapulco, where the bodies were discovered in early January and where recently a dozen cabdrivers were found killed, tourism has fallen off, according to reports.
Duckstad, now back in Minneapolis, said he noticed an increased military presence. Soldiers riding around in trucks made him feel more comfortable. He didn't hear gunfire and didn't experience anything threatening, he said.
"There are places in Minneapolis I wouldn't go at night where there are not a lot of pedestrians," Duckstad said. "There are no guarantees in this life. You can get run over by a truck crossing the street wherever you are."
Duckstad chose to focus on reconnecting with friends he's made in the Acapulco hotel over the years, on watching whales swim, and like any winter-weary Minnesotan, on soaking in the warmth: "There's no snow!"
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102