An invasion of a thick and stinky seaweed, Sargassum, is covering the beaches of the Caribbean paradise of Mexico’s Tulum.
The travel and tourism industry is a major economic driver for the Mexican economy, with over 44 million visitors expected in 2019.
However, the current U.S. political climate toward Mexico, safety and security concerns even in tourist areas, the dismantling of the national tourism board in May and reports of massive amounts of algae washing up on some beaches may leave some travelers with doubts on whether to travel to the destination.
And whether tourists should travel to Mexico may depend on where they’re going and how they prepare.
In May, YestoMexico, a U.S. nonprofit organization that seeks to educate travelers about Mexico in order to encourage visitation, surveyed a network of U.S. travel agents and professionals in the Mexican tourism industry about the perceived impact of media reporting in the U.S. on Mexico’s reputation. Of the more than 200 people who responded, 93% said they felt that Mexico’s reputation as a tourist destination has been at least slightly impacted as a result of constant news reports on immigration and border security issues.
In a deal announced Friday, Mexico agreed to increase security along its southern border with Guatemala, where many Central Americans are crossing into Mexico on their way to the U.S.
In addition, Mexico has agreed to take “decisive action to dismantle human smuggling and trafficking organizations as well as their illicit financial and transportation networks,” according to an overview of the agreement released by the U.S. State Department.
President Donald Trump had threatened 5% tariffs on all Mexican imports unless officials there figured out a way to crack down on the flow of Central American migrants.
“The ongoing politics surrounding what’s happening at the U.S.- Mexico border is a factor that can’t be ignored, says Tom Brussow, president of YesToMexico and Sunsational Beach Vacations, a travel agency based in Wisconsin. “While the constant news flow, which often generalizes Mexico unfairly in a negative light, surely affects how Mexico is perceived, the truth is Mexico’s most-popular tourist destinations are hundreds of miles away and are unimpacted and uninvolved in the political issues driving these headlines.”
Dissolution of the national tourism board
In May, the Mexico Tourism Board, known as the Consejo, was hit with drastic cuts.
“The decision by Mexican President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), to disband the Mexico Tourism Board is unfortunate for those of us who want to promote and share the wonders of Mexico with the world,” said Zachary Rabinor, CEO of Journey Mexico, a network of travel agents and travel planners specializing in Mexico. “It is great to see AMLO’s passion for investing in the Mayan Train that will traverse the Yucatan Peninsula, but promoting Mexico as a world-class travel destination is equally important.”
Funding is being diverted from the tourism board to the Mayan Train project, which aims to create more comprehensive transit for local communities.
The individual states of Mexico are now reliant on their own funding to promote themselves to foreign tourists instead of centralized government help.
“The dissolution of the Mexico Tourism Board has affected us by not having a promotional umbrella campaign for the entire country and different segments in the country, the majority of which have always promoted the Quintana Roo destinations,” Dario Flota Ocampo, Director of the Quintana Roo Tourism Board told USA TODAY. Quintana Roo includes the hot spots of Cancun, Riviera Maya, Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel.
“The greatest impact has been on budget. For example, participation in international trade shows and fairs now costs us five or six times more than what it cost before,” Ocampo said.
“Following the dissolution of the Mexico Tourism Board, the Jalisco State (capital is Guadalajara) has begun to work more closely with neighboring states, like Guanajuato and Mexico City in order to join resources and use them in more efficient ways to promote their destinations,” Germán Ralis, Tourism Secretary of the Jalisco State told USA TODAY.
Is Mexico safe?
The U.S. State Department currently has a “Level 2” travel advisory warning on a scale of 1 to 4, which means “exercise increased caution.” But some of Mexico’s states have Level 4 advisories, including Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas. Common tourist regions like Baja California, Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Oaxaca have a Level 2 advisory.
Some tourists have recently had safety issues while traveling to Mexico. Thomas Finn, mentioned in a Twitter post that he was robbed in Mexico June 3. “A guy took $200 from me in Cancun night club, and he made a lunge towards me and before he could hit me, I hit him in the head with my water bottle and immediately sprinted away back to my hotel,” Finn told USA TODAY in an email.
Tourist areas are not immune.
The State Department issued a travel advisory in August 2018 warning American citizens headed to Mexico to use caution in several states the same week eight bodies were discovered in Cancun outside of the city’s beach hotel zone, though the warning did not refer to the Quintana Roo/Cancun area.
An investigation last year from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which is part of the USA TODAY Network, found that more than 170 travelers had become sick, seriously injured — and in some cases died — after drinking small and moderate amounts of alcohol at all-inclusive resorts throughout the country.
David Leventhal is the owner of Playa Viva resort in Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa in the Guerrero state, which has a Level 4 travel advisory warning (do not travel). Leventhal believes the travel ban in his region is wrong because it is a blanket ban on the entire state. “This is like banning all travel to a state like Colorado as a result of a series of school shootings,” Leventhal told USA TODAY. “Tourists are in no more danger skiing in Aspen or Vail as a result of school shootings. Potential gang violence in the non-tourist areas does not make beach vacation tourist areas dangerous.”
Some cities and states in Mexico are creating new security measures to maintain and increase tourism. Rodrigo Esponda, Managing Director of the Los Cabos Tourism Board told USA TODAY that Los Cabos implemented a five-point turnaround plan in 2017 to strengthen security infrastructure. As a result, Esponda claims the destination experienced over a 90% decrease in crime since 2017.
“Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations like Cancun, Riviera Maya, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico City and Cabo San Lucas remain safe,” says Brussow. “Perception doesn’t always match reality as often violent crimes that are reported on in the U.S. take place outside of main tourism zones. However, by tourists using common sense and taking reasonable safety precautions, they should have no hesitancy in visiting Mexico.”
Mike Nelson, owner of mexicomike.com, a site that educates people on driving and road tripping in Mexico, agrees.
“I drive all over Mexico frequently to update my highway guides for driving tourists,” Nelson told USA TODAY. “I’ve been driving Mexico for 40 years, and my opinion is that Mexico is safer for tourists today than it was five years ago. Recently, I drove about 1,025 miles round trip from Reynosa to the town of Calvillo, Aguascalientes. I was alone and not once did I feel unsafe even though most of my trip was in areas classified as Level 3 (reconsider travel).”
Some Mexico beaches overrun by algae
Another issue that has become more prominent is that Caribbean beaches in Mexico, including Cancun and Cozumel, are suffering from algae bloom. The putrid macro algae, or sargassum, is being brought from somewhere between the Atlantic Ocean and Brazil by ocean currents.
“The sargassum season is generally from May to October; however it has historically been light to unnoticeable,” said Rabinor of Journey Mexico. “In the past couple of years, Mexico along with the Caribbean has experienced especially heavy episodes of sargassum.”
Rabinor urges travelers to check with their hotels to make sure they have procedures in place to clear their beaches of the algae as needed. Some days the hotels may need to clear the beaches more than once a day, while other times it may be needed just a couple of times a week depending on the sargassum levels.
“We recommend that travelers work with reputable Mexico travel providers, who are constantly monitoring the situation so that they are more likely to stay at a property that has plans and the means to manage their beaches,” Rabinor said. Journey Mexico has a blog with updates on Mexico beach sargassum levels.
Measures to repurpose the sargassum are also underway. “Numerous projects have been proposed by government and private entities to use the sargassum in composting, fertilization for golf courses, shoe soles, construction materials, cellulose to make paper, to generate electricity in hotels and obtaining collagen for cosmetic use, among other ideas,” Ocampo said.
There are other attractions beyond the beaches, like golf and spas that make the Quintana Roo region still worth a visit, he added.
Contributing: David Jackson, Lilly Price
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