Travel operators bill Cancún and the adjoining Riviera Maya on Mexico’s Caribbean coast as carefree beach escapes with something for everyone from spring break partyers to families. But a wave of violence, linked to rival drug gangs, threatens travel in the region like a storm hovering on the horizon.
The local news site Noticaribe reported 14 murders in Cancún over a 36-hour period in early April, continuing a pattern of violence reported last summer. Gun deaths have also occurred in Playa del Carmen, the biggest town on the Riviera Maya, about 40 miles south of Cancún.
Travelers have not been targeted in these crimes, but a bomb that detonated in February on a ferry linking Playa del Carmen with the island of Cozumel, a popular cruise port, injured more than two dozen passengers, including tourists. It prompted the Department of State to issue a travel ban on the ferry route for government employees. Reuters later reported the bomb was a homemade device believed to be unrelated to terrorists or organized crime.
Since then, Mexican authorities have strengthened security around the ferry as well as the ferries that run between Cancún and Isla Mujeres, including adding metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs. The American government subsequently dropped its ban on ferry travel.
The State Department’s advisory level remains at the second of four cautionary categories, indicating travelers should “exercise increased caution.” It is the same threat level of Antarctica, Denmark, Italy and Britain. Its report, updated on March 16, on the state of Quintana Roo, home to Cancún and the Riviera Maya, notes the uptick in homicides but does not restrict travel for U.S. government employees.
“While most of these homicides appeared to be targeted, criminal organization assassinations, turf battles between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime in areas frequented by U.S. citizens. Shooting incidents injuring or killing bystanders have occurred,” the advisory stated.
Tourism authorities have responded by stepping up security. The Mexican navy patrols the beaches, federal police monitor the highways and the army is in charge of entry points into the region’s cities. Dario Flota Ocampo, the director of the Quintana Roo Tourism Board, said that 3,000 new surveillance cameras are being installed in the Cancún and Playa del Carmen areas.
“Tourism is the main industry for the state of Quintana Roo, which is why our main concern is to provide security and ensure travelers have great experience because we want them to come back,” Mr. Flota Ocampo said.
Some 16.9 million visitors came to the state in 2017, an increase of 5.3 percent over the year prior, according to the state tourism board. Over 52 percent of those arrivals were repeat visitors.
Told to exercise caution, Americans have continued to travel to the Yucatán.
Whether it was the very cold winter endured in the northern United States, or the number of deals coming from the rapidly growing destination (some 14,000 hotel rooms are currently in development), tourism has shown resiliency.
In the first quarter of 2018, hotel occupancy in Cancún stayed level with 2017 figures at a healthy 77 percent, even though the room inventory grew by 3 percent this year, according to STR, Inc., a travel research company that tracks hotel data.
Travel agencies report strong interest in the region. AAA Travel predicted that Cancún would be its most popular international destination for family travelers this year.
The deal site Travelzoo currently has packages at a luxury resort in Playa del Carmen at $529 for three nights for two people, just over half off. The site’s senior editor, Gabe Saglie, said hotel promotions have “created some amazing value south of the border, enough to get many travelers, while cognizant of security concerns and undoubtedly traveling with heightened self-awareness and vigilance, to pounce.”
Bookings are up 12 percent to Mexico over this time last year at the luxury-focused travel agency Ovation Vacations in New York, even though advisers are fielding more inquiries regarding safety.
“There’s a lot of hesitancy, but there’s resiliency,” said Jack Ezon, the owner of the agency.
Mexico likely benefited from those seeking to avoid hurricane-hit islands in the Caribbean, he said, but noted that Mexican resorts also offer strong value.
“It’s hard to find that kind of beach within three to five hours flight with that kind of service,” Mr. Ezon said.
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