Is it safe to travel to Mexico? The U.S. issues strict warnings for these 5 states

If you are planning a sunny spring vacation anytime soon, avoid Mexico, the U.S. government has warned.

The State Department has issued new “do not travel” advisories for five Mexico states following surges in gang-related violent crime. The states Americans have been strictly told to avoid are Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas. U.S. government employees are forbidden from traveling to those states due to “widespread violent crime.”

Mexico has been working to shed its negative reputation after the U.S. issued a travel advisory in August due to rising violent crime, including kidnapping, homicide, robbery and carjacking.

Mexico has been working to shed its negative reputation after the U.S. issued a travel advisory in August due to rising violent crime, including kidnapping, homicide, robbery and carjacking. There have also been reports of tourists consuming tainted alcohol and other safety issues in recent months.

Although this warning appears to be focused around gang and drug violence, this August advisory included Cancún and Los Cabos, two of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. One of the areas affected by the previous advisory is Oaxaca, where MarketWatch reporter Emma Court was recently robbed at gunpoint during a cooking class. Paola Hernandez-O’Connor, a 27-year-old living in New York City, has seen her fair share of violence in Mexico, where she was born: she has been robbed at gunpoint, witnessed a kidnapping at a bar, and even had members of her family killed. And when she decided despite this to hold her wedding two months ago in Cancún, two members of her wedding party were robbed by the police.

“I go home every year, though, despite this,” she said. “I am obscenely proud to be Mexican, and I will never not go there.”

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Hernandez-O’Connor is one of many visitors who aren’t deterred by increasing violence, though she noticed heightened security in Cancún since she’d last visited. Mexico has welcomed record numbers of visitors in recent years, but a safety warning from the U.S. has cast a long shadow over visitors’ arrivals as recent reports of violence against tourists emerge.

American tourists are conflicted. On the one hand, they’re looking for relatively cheap getaways with beach and sun, and the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean make travel there difficult. On the other hand, the travel advisory for Mexico came at a bad time, as travelers plan winter vacations. Viral videos of violence in the country don’t help to ease the perception it is unsafe.

“It is a place where there is violence — and violence down there is usually accompanied by guns,” said Tim Bradley, a security expert at IMG GlobalSecur, a Florida-based company that provides security to high-level executives abroad.

The number of tourists visiting Mexico soared reached 35 million visitors last year, up 9% from 2015. In the first three months of 2017, the country saw record numbers, with 9.3 million visitors bringing in $5 billion in revenue.

Now, members of the tourism industry are doubling down on selling vacation spots to tourists as safer options, said Rodrigo Esponda, the managing director of the Los Cabos Tourism Board. “We have launched a new action plan with key steps to make sure Cabo is viewed as a safe destination,” Esponda said. Esponda and the city of Los Cabos obviously have a vested interest in the topic: Largely reliant on tourism, some 90% of locals there work in hospitality. Los Cabos hosted 2.1 million visitors last year, 75% of whom were from outside of Mexico.

The Los Cabos plan will create a “rapid-response network” between businesses to report suspicious activity; a hotel-security committee; and security training aligned with Overseas Security Advisory Council Standards, a Bureau of Diplomatic Security unit created by the U.S. State Department in 1985.

Los Cabos will also increase video surveillance in the area, increasing the number of cameras in high-traffic tourist areas from 40 to 250. It is also partnering with the Marines to build a new security center. The action plan was launched through a private-public partnership and has received $47 million in funding this year alone, according to Esponda.

Elsewhere, efforts are ongoing: In Cancún, army forces were deployed in tourist-heavy city centers following a shootout in January. Remberto Estrada Barba, mayor of the municipality of Cancún, has attributed the rise in crime to the city’s growth and promised to increase police presence to address the issue. In August, Mexican police raided 31 locations in search of illegal alcohol after a 20-year-old Wisconsin woman drowned under suspicious circumstances.

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Though there are no known reports of American tourists being targeted in murders, according to the State Department, Bradley said innocent people can be caught in the crossfire of drug violence. In addition to these safety risks, others (including the aforementioned MarketWatch reporter) have been robbed at gunpoint, and there have been several reports of tourists consuming tainted alcohol. One website called Mexico Vacation Awareness has collected dozens of stories of tourists who have died from falling, drowning, or being kidnapped and murdered.

Bradley suggested staying on resort grounds and not spending time in the tourist areas of towns, especially after dark. “There are many parts of Mexico you don’t want to be after midnight,” he said. He was quick to point out that violence can occur anywhere, including the U.S., but in areas with high levels of violence tourists should be particularly careful.

Don’t consume too much alcohol, he said, and stick to beer as there have been concerns about cheap liquor making tourists sick. He also suggested avoiding crowds and traveling with others.

“It is not about whether it is safe; it’s about what the risk level is,” he said. “There is a lot you can do to make risk more manageable. I have no problem traveling to Mexico. I just take precautions when I go. If others were to do that too, they’d be fine.”

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