"I have plans to go to Mexico, but … should I?"
This is a question I've been hearing repeatedly since the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Mexico last week.
Mexico is just the latest member of a club that now includes 30 nations around the world, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Israel, Nepal and the Philippines (a complete list of travel warning countries appears at the end of this column).
So what does it all mean?
According to the State Department, official warnings are issued to describe "long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable" (travel alerts, on the other hand, are issued for short-term events, including natural disasters).
For Mexico, you might say it's a case of a few very bad areas spoiling it for an entire country. Even the State Department acknowledges that millions of people safely visit Mexico each year, including tens of thousands who cross the border every day; however, some of the border towns have gotten increasingly violent.
Indeed, most of the violence -- and it is drug-related -- plays out in border towns like Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and Nogales, which the State Department warning says "have experienced public shootouts during daylight hours in shopping centers and other public venues."
"Yes," said Houston-based Aleasha Stephens of AllAboutMexico.com, "people are telling us they are cancelling bookings to Mexico." Stephens says the travel warning is just the latest in a series of tourism catastrophes that have plagued the country beginning with the global economic crisis, followed by last year's outbreaks of the H1N1 virus (first called swine flu when it was reported in the Mexican state of Veracruz).
Stephens adds that "Mexico, as a whole, is safe" -- a sentiment echoed by the Mexican Tourism Board's acting director, Carlos Behnsen, who acknowledges trouble at the border, but told us, "The country's tourism destinations remain safe places to visit."
It should be noted though, that earlier this month, 13 people were killed in and around perennial visitors' favorite, Acapulco -- though none of the dead were tourists.
The travel warning is having at least some effect. Steve Bate, who works for a U.S.-based multinational company, said he and other employees received an e-mail last week saying that "all business travel to any location in Mexico must first be approved by a corporate officer." I have also heard at least one report of a company insisting that employees who must visit border towns stay in hotels on the U.S. side.
Not surprisingly, we are seeing good prices on flights to various Mexican resort areas, but that's what happens when you can't fill up the planes; ABC News and others have done stories on worried students cancelling spring break trips to Mexico (though perhaps worried parents were doing the cancelling for them).
So what's a traveler to do? Start by educating yourself.
Read the State Department warnings and alerts. And don't be lulled into complacency just because your destination isn't on the list; the State Department Web site has an invaluable index of country-specific information that provides tourists with all sorts of data, including laws on crime and punishment, especially when they differ from U.S. laws.