ACAPULCO, Mexico — Tourism has long been one of Mexico’s most important industries, but certain parts of the country have seen their tourist industries hit hard by rising drug violence. For many places it’s a catch-22: tourists get scared away by drug violence, but at the same time their money is the only thing keeping the drug trade from overrunning the town. Once the tourists leave, there is only one other way for people to make a living.
Acapulco is perhaps the hardest hit of Mexico’s resort towns. Once a popular destination for movie stars, the city is now in the middle of a turf war as rival cartels fight for control of drug smuggling ports. With a murder rate of more than 110 per 100,000 people, Acapulco is now considered one of the most violent cities in Mexico.
As a result, tourism has plummeted. Even though the resort district and tourist areas remain relatively safe and most of the violence is confined to certain parts of town that have long been plagued by the drug trade, tourists have been frightened off by the rise in violence and the countless gruesome crime stories. The increased presence of armed security guards and patrols has also put many people off. To make matters worse, many U.S. politicians and news commentators have publicly warned against traveling to Acapulco.
In 2006, 350,000 foreign tourists flew into Acapulco. In 2012, just 61,000 did. Before 2011 nearly 200 cruise ships docked in Acapulco’s ports each year. In 2011 that number fell to 81, and then plummeted to nine in 2012 and only five in 2014. The number of spring breakers visiting Acapulco has declined by a whopping 92 percent.
Last year in 2014 things went from bad to worse. Acapulco is the largest city in the southern state of Guerrero. Guerrero is also home to the city of Iguala, which was cast into the international spotlight last fall following the disappearance and presumed murder of 43 students from a teacher’s college. Since then the state has been filled with protests, many of them violent and many taking place in Acapulco.
In November, a series of violent protests over a holiday weekend shut down the city and kept tourists away. The city was anticipating for 85 percent of its hotel rooms to be occupied for the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, instead just 20 to 50 percent were, depending on the hotel. As a result, Christmas break cancellations were widespread. Nearly one-third of luxury hotel rooms were vacant over what is normally the peak of the tourist season while more than two-thirds of lower and middle range hotel rooms were also vacant.
Eighty percent of revenue for the state of Guerrero comes from tourism, so this drastic decline has been a huge blow for the economy, not just of Acapulco but for the entire state. Many employers have been forced to cut jobs and many businesses have had to close. This increase in poverty and unemployment risks driving more people into the drug trade.
Acapulco isn’t the only part of Mexico that is struggling. Many U.S.-border cities have also been hard hit. A select few cities really have become unsafe, but in most border towns the tourist areas have remained largely unscathed. Tijuana has been particularly hard hit as cross border tourism declined by 90-95 percent since the start of the drug war in 2006. Tourists were once again scared off by the heavy police presence and gruesome crime stories. The proximity of the tourist zone to crime zones did not help, although the violence has rarely spilled over.
The tourist districts in border towns like Tijuana and Nogales have been filled with closed up shops for the past several years. Merchants complain of a major decline in sales. Once again, this has likely driven more people into the drug trade. Even beach towns like Ensenada have suffered from declining tourism as tourists are afraid to cross through Tijuana and other border crossings.
The good news is that tourist numbers in Tijuana are slowly starting to rise as crime levels have fallen significantly and the security situation has improved. Juarez has been trying hard to lure tourists back since its murder rate has fallen by more than half since its peak in 2010. But despite these major improvements, most Americans remain afraid to visit these cities.
– Matt Lesso