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Mexico looks for rebound in U.S. tourists

This undated photo shows part of Xcaret, near Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico known as the Riviera Maya. Despite the ongoing drug war, travel companies seem to be increasingly optimistic about Mexico. Starting in May, Southwest/AirTran will offer daily service from San Antonio, Texas, to Cancun.

After a few years in which drug-fueled violence prompted many Americans to think twice about traveling to Mexico, a rebound in U.S. tourists could be on the horizon.

“We are very optimistic about 2012,” said Rodolfo Lopez Negrete, chief operating officer of the Mexico Tourism Board. “We’re forecasting an increase of 10 percent from the U.S. market.”

That would represent a significant change from 2011, in which arrivals from the U.S. are estimated to have fallen 3 percent from the 11.9 million travelers who flew in from U.S. cities or arrived via U.S.-based cruise ships in 2010.

Nevertheless, the U.S. State Department still advises Americans to exercise caution when traveling to Mexico. On Wednesday, the department released its latest travel warning, updating one that had been in effect since April 2011. As with the earlier warning, it reiterated that millions of Americans safely visit the country every year and that most of the drug-related violence occurs near the Mexico-U.S. border and along drug-trafficking routes, rather than in resort towns and other tourist destinations. 

Meanwhile, travel companies seem to be increasingly optimistic about Mexico, inaugurating or reinstating more options for southbound travelers: 

  • In December, Virgin America launched nonstop service between San Francisco and Puerto Vallarta with five flights per week.
  • Starting in May, Southwest/AirTran will offer daily service from Orange County, Calif., to Cabo San Lucas and Mexico City, along with service from San Antonio, Texas, to Cancun and Mexico City.
  • After canceling stops in Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta last year, Princess will once again call on Puerto Vallarta later this month and resume stops in Mazatlan this fall.

Together, such developments provide something of a counterpoint to the toll Mexico’s ongoing drug war has taken on both the country’s residents and the tourism industry. The former have borne the brunt of the violence — the conflict has claimed more than 47,500 lives since 2006, said Pablo Weisz, regional security manager for the Americas at International SOS — but the resulting headlines have also put a chill on the country’s tourism trade.

The problem, at least in part, said Weisz, is one of perception. “The security situation has not necessarily changed,” he told msnbc.com. “It’s more a case that the perception among travelers has become more aligned with the reality that Mexico is a huge country and a complex security environment.”

Most of the violence — roughly 70 percent, said Weisz — has taken place in the northern states that border the U.S. Other hot spots include Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa and Veracruz.

“As long as you’re going to places outside the affected areas,” he said, “you’re going to see a relatively benign security environment.”

That said, Mazatlan may still present a special case that warrants extra caution, says Marie Metz, Latin American security analyst for iJET International Inc. “It’s in Sinaloa, which is among the states with the highest homicide rates,” she said. “I wouldn’t peg it as an A-OK place to go; you could go to Cabo or Puerto Vallarta just as easily.”

In fact, just last month, The Globe and Mail reported that a young Canadian woman was brutally beaten in the elevator of an all-inclusive resort in the Mazatlan.

While dismayed by the incident, Lopez Negrete maintains that it was the type of crime that could happen in any city in the U.S., Canada or Europe. “It was an isolated incident and not cartel-related,” he said. “The guy was immediately apprehended and is already facing the law.”

In the meantime, security experts and tourism officials agree that, isolated incidents and petty crime aside, the vast majority of visitors to Mexico have little to fear when traveling to resort communities, colonial cities and the nation’s capital. As that message gets out, the hope is that Americans will once again put the country on their travel itineraries.

Related: Time to say adios to Mexico travel?

In fact, it may already be happening, suggests travel agent Karin O’Keefe, owner of Fun ‘n Sun Travel in Springfield, Mass. “There’s been major resistance in recent years,” she said. “Between the drug violence and the swine flu ‘epidemic,’ nobody wanted to go to Mexico.”

Recently, though, she’s seen a change, citing a client who had just returned from a trip to Tulum on the Yucatan peninsula. “They’d never been to Mexico,” said O’Keefe, “and they were intimidated by people who said, ‘Don’t go, it’s dangerous.’”

Their impression?

“They had no problems, they had a ball and they said they’d go again,” said O’Keefe. “They came back wondering what everybody was talking about.”

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.