U.S. Travel Warnings, regarding Particular Areas in Mexico, Must be in Proper Context: by Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete and Shannon Stowell

2 August 2011

Assistant Editor's Note:  The following op-ed piece was written by ATTA President Shannon Stowell and CEO of the Mexican Tourism Board, Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete, was published today in the Dallas Morning News, El Paso Times, Austin Statesman, Baja Insider, Mexi Data.

There were no fireworks in Nuevo Laredo over the July 4th long weekend - of any kind. In the lead up to America’s Independence Day, the Texas Department of Public Safety published a travel warning encouraging Texans to avoid travel to the Mexican border town which is but a stone’s throw away from the cities of San Antonio and Corpus Christi. The reason: “credible intelligence” indicating that the Zetas Cartel was planning attacks on U.S. citizens. This travel warning is significant and marks a very constructive trend with regard to the dissemination of information to the traveling public.

This is not the first travel warning the Texas Government has issued with regard to travel to Mexico and no doubt it will not be the last, however it was the first time in recent history in which the guidelines were clear, precise and couched in context.  The Texas Government ought to be commended for this.

In 2011 alone, the Lone Star state issued three travel warnings to Mexico including this most recent incarnation regarding Nuevo Laredo. The language used in the two previous versions was abstract, and therefore, in our opinion, inadvertently instigated unnecessary confusion and alarm about travel to Mexico. As an example, in the warning published on March 1st of this year, entitled: DPS discourages Spring Break travel to Mexico the Department said: “Our safety message is simple: avoid traveling to Mexico during Spring Break and stay alive”.

We do not at all dispute the fact that there are parts of Mexico which are prone to violent incidents (this could also be said of Austin, New York, London, Paris or Sydney for that matter) and are not currently safe for travel. In fact, the Government of Mexico discourages its own citizens from traveling to these locales. We also understand the inherent desire of the Department to keep its citizens informed and educated - this is the job of Government and moreover the job of the Department of Public Safety. What we did take issue with is the insinuation that the entire length and width of Mexico is riddled with crime.

To be clear, the drug-related violence which prompted those warnings emanates from select states in the north of Mexico and in some coastal and regional communities. These are located far from Mexico’s iconic tourist destinations of Cancun, Huatulco, Ixtapa, Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos.  To say that “Mexico is dangerous is misleading, unwarranted and insulting.

Mexico is a geographically large country, close to the size of Western Europe, with 2,500 municipalities, only 80 of which have had or are having problems related to cartel violence.  This represents less than five percent of the entire country. The Department’s blanket travel warnings were akin to advising tourists not to visit Austin due to violence in Detroit.

Similar travel warnings issued by the U.S. State Department, relating to the state of Jalisco caused Princess Cruises to cancel its calls to Puerto Vallarta in June. Again, we acknowledge that there are areas of Jalisco which ought to be avoided. Puerto Vallarta though is safe and sits very far away from those problematic regions (the state of Jalisco is over 30,000 square miles in area). Princess Cruise’s decision is an unfortunate example of the problems caused by a lack of clarity in such warnings.

These issues - which are to the detriment of the American traveler - are precisely the issues which motivate our desire to moderate these warnings.

And so we are encouraged by the latest release from the Texas Department of Public Safety. Travel guidelines must be couched in context.  They must be precise and specific. This valuable information will be to the benefit of the American traveling public.