Millions of Americans travel to Mexico every year and likely will continue to visit, despite U.S. warnings about crime, tainted alcohol, and potential hurricanes on the other side of the border.
Steve Danishek, president of TMA Travel, shares what you can do to reduce your risk while visiting Mexico:
Q: Tell me about the government warning that came out this week.
A: This is a renewal of an existing advisory. That's the bad news. Conditions in Mexico have not improved. The same cautions to tourists remain in place. Parts of Mexico can be very dangerous, even in safe tourist areas. Gang fights are spilling over into safer areas; not frequently, but enough that cautions are advised. The advisory even details the three types of kidnapping that may occur.
Q: What are you hearing from inside the travel industry. Are customers concerned or canceling trips?
A: Tourists tend to become complacent when negative headlines disappear, so no panic to cancel at the moment. Hopefully, things will stay quiet and it won't come to that. The airlines are betting on that. Alaska, Delta or American do not have Mexico Travel Advisories in place at this time. However, travel agents, even online travel agencies, like Expedia, do have a duty to disclose that an advisory is in place to:
1) Inform the tourists to review the advisories and their comfort level
2) Shield their companies from liability claims if something bad happens, and they did not make a disclosure to their client.
Clients should ask questions and keep in mind that the situation can change instantly, like between the time you buy your tickets and your departure date.
Q: If I'm traveling to Mexico, how can I reduce the risk that I'll become a crime victim?
A: Standard protocols apply. Stay in the normal tourist areas. Ask the hotel/resort staff about security issues. Check online for updates. Stay away from protests and crowds; a selfie is not worth an injury. Late night walks in bad parts of town or the country - any country - are a bad idea. Keep in mind that the prosecution of crimes against tourists rarely leads to criminals in jail or compensation to the victim. U.S. laws DO NOT apply to you in Mexico.
I encourage passengers traveling internationally, including Mexico, to enroll in the U.S. State Department's STEP - Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. It is free.
1) You will receive information from the embassy about safety conditions so that you can make informed decisions.
2) It allows the U.S. embassy to contact you in emergency situations (natural disaster, civil unrest, family emergencies).
3) I will help family and friends determine if you are safe.
Q: The new State Department travel warning comes on the heels of an advisory last month that some of the alcohol served in Mexico may be tainted, and it might be what caused the death of a tourist from Wisconsin in July.
A: Bad alcohol and drugs in alcoholic drinks and subsequent assaults and robberies are unfortunately not new. The tourist bureaus, resorts, and local police are polished in minimizing the impact and deflecting the issue. Tourist money is important and drives the response. For the same reason prosecutions rarely occur and follow up is lax. Only when deaths or nationwide exposure (USAToday series) is there a credible response. Businesses cutting financial corners is a tradition, but one with an occasional adverse expense, i.e. dead or injured tourist and tarnishment. Refilling name brand liquor bottles with cheap or harmful alcohol are not new. I stay with a beer in Mexico, with the top on.
Q: What else can I do to minimize my risk from tainted alcohol?
A: I avoid mixed drinks since it is too easy to refill a name brand bottle with an inferior product. I stick with beer - unopened or opened in front of me. If drinking with a group (family, friends) have a "designated watcher," who can keep close tabs on you in case you pass out. That this occurs naturally in many groups, many cases do not devolve into assault and robberies. Use common sense: Try to minimize your exposure as a potential victim.
Q: Let's talk weather. It's hurricane season, right?
A: Yes, we are midway through hurricane season. If a hurricane targets your resort destination, airlines will post waivers and dates where you can cancel and receive refunds or credits. Pay attention to the dates for rebooking and the specific terms and conditions. These may vary by airline. Refunds for hotels and tour packages will be noted in their terms and conditions and may or may not be refundable or for future credit.
Q: If I'm booking a vacation to Mexico, where can I look, whom can I ask about the risks?
A: "State Department site. Facebook and social media by destination, i.e. has anyone had problems in Mazatlan in the last few weeks? News media. It's important for tourists to do their part too. If you run into an adverse situation, talk to the media. The more stories that are posted, the greater pressure on the government, airlines, and hotels to demonstrate that tourists can be made safe in Mexico. Tourism revenue is a lifeblood for Mexico. Threats that will dry that up will be responded to.
Q: If I decide to cancel a vacation because of an uptick in crime, tainted alcohol or weather, am I still left holding the bill?
A: Currently normal travel insurance would not cover voluntary cancellations in cases where someone simply felt unsafe. However, Cancel For Any Reason travel insurance would cover you. They usually refund about 75% of your travel cost, not 100%.
Travel expert Steve Danishek has advice on staying safe while you visit Mexico.