Seeking Tourists in Rocky Point, Mexico

Travel advisories are hurting small, safe resort towns near the border.

March 16, 2010— -- In the wake of U.S. travel advisories warning tourists about violence at the Mexican border, business owners in the Mexican town of Rocky Point find themselves fighting to attract American tourists.

Rocky Point, Mexico -- known locally as Puerto Penasco -- is about 60 miles from the Arizona border, and is usually a popular spring-break destination for college students because of its affordable prices and its beaches on the Gulf of California. For some, the legal drinking age of 18 is an appeal as well.

But last year left Rocky Point's economy in shambles. With the threats of swine flu and drug cartel violence, as well as the imposition of regulations requiring that international travelers have a valid passport in order to re-enter the U.S., businesses in Rocky Point lost near-crippling numbers of visitors.

Guillermo Parra, the owner of a Rocky Point bar called 'Dugout,' said he's had to make some major changes because business has declined by 60-70 percent since last year. He now relies on local, returning visitors to stay afloat.

"I had to cut three employees," he said. "I have to work, [as well as] my daughter."

"Last year was dramatic," said Oscar Palacio, owner of the coastal resort Playa Bonita. "People are afraid to come to Rocky Point because of what they hear of Mexico."

Palacio said that around this time, Playa Bonita is usually 75 percent booked for spring break -- but right now his resort is only about 50 percent booked. He recently met with other local business owners to discuss the state of their tourist industry.

"So far Rocky Point is doing slightly better than last year," Palacio said.

According to Palacio, Rocky Point had 867,300 Mexican visitors and 1,680,000 U.S. tourists in 2008 . In2009 the number of Mexican visitors rose to 940,000 and the number of U.S. tourists dropped, to 1,140,000.

Palacio and other business owners are planning special events, like concerts on the beach, to attract more vacationers. He also traveled to the University of Arizona with Rocky Point's tourism director, urging the university not to issue any special travel warnings for Mexico. There are three public universities in Arizona; all, for now, have directed students to the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs instead of issuing their own advisories.

But Rocky Point's efforts to portray itself as safe are not going well. The U.S. government has renewed its travel alert for Mexico, warning of an increase in drug-related violence and saying all those wanting to travel to the border should "exercise extreme caution."

Town Promises Tight Security

Rocky Point police chief Fransisco Erick Landagaray Macias said problems within the department such as corruption have decreased since a new mayor was elected in September. He said the new administration has been tirelessly working to eliminate corruption and that the biggest crime problem in Rocky Point is not tourist-related, but instead is domestic violence. He said parents should have no concerns in sending their children.

"There's going to be a lot of security on the highway and in the city," Macias said.

Arizona State University sophomore Noel Acosta, 20, majoring in computer information systems and finance, said he's not letting the State Department's warning keep him from spending his spring break at his father's house in Rocky Point.

"I feel safe in Rocky Point," Acosta said. "It's a home to me."

He's going with four other students, and he said the advisory did not affect their decision to go.

Travel to Mexico on the Rise?

After a major downturn in 2009, resort towns in Mexico may see a rise in tourism this spring, according to the AAA.

AAA Arizona said that in years past, the decline in the purchase of car insurance for Mexico was evidence that fewer travelers felt safe vacationing there. The number of auto insurance policies purchased through AAA Arizona decreased by 68 percent from 2008 to 2009. That's compared to the 18 percent drop in policy purchases from 2007 to 2008.

But Michelle Donati, the public affairs supervisor for AAA Arizona, said that while they can't accurately project how many people will be purchasing car insurance for this spring break because travelers typically purchase only days beforehand, their travel booking department is seeing positive numbers.

"This year we are anticipating that more students will be travelling to Mexico this year than last year," Donati said.

Arizona State University sophomore Chelsey Camponeschi, 20, said she plans to spend spring break in Cabo San Lucas, located at the southern tip of Baja California. While the travel alert said travelers should be safe once they arrive in well-known tourist areas, she isn't taking any chances.

"We're going to have bodyguards going with us," she said. "We're also just going to try to stick right near our resort. There's plenty of things to do there anyways."

Although Camponeschi is travelling with about 25 other students, she admits that what she's seen and heard on the news has made her apprehensive about going.

"I'm a little bit more fearful than I have been in the past."

As for Acosta, he said that while he does take certain precautions, such as not carrying more cash than he needs, he isn't worried about his trip.

"Nothing will happen to me," Acosta said.

Although Acosta feels comfortable, the assurance that many places in Mexico are not directly affected by drug cartel violence does not ease everyone's worries.

"Knowing there will be several people there maintaining that we're safe and keeping a close eye on all of us definitely makes me feel much safer," Camponeschi said. contributor Lindsey Reiser is a member of the Arizona State University ABC News on Campus bureau.