Mexican port suffers loss of cruise ships

ByDavid Agren, Special for USA TODAY
February 20, 2012, 7:54 PM

— -- MAZATLÁN, Mexico — Jorge Figueroa made a living offering tours of this fishing port to passengers from the cruise ships lines that arrived regularly.

The guide and father would take tourists on shopping excursions, jaunts to Spanish colonial villages, zip line adventures and tastings at a distillery making a tequila-like liquor.

Nowadays he sits idle. Cruise ships stopped calling on Mazatlán in 2011 over security concerns, driving down his business by 80% and forcing him to moonlight as a night auditor in a hotel to make ends meet.

"I feel lucky," Figueroa, 34, says. "There are another 60 guys without any work."

The fallout of the cruise ships abandoning Mazatlán can be seen in the many shuttered businesses and the easy driving along streets that at this time of year were once clogged with cars ferrying tourists to the sights.

Guides, tourism officials and locals insist Mazatlán is safe for visitors. But the problem facing Mazatlán, famed for the biggest Carnaval celebrations on the Pacific, highlights a continuing challenge for Mexico's tourism industry as it tries to counter the perceptions of danger stemming from a crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime that has claimed more than 47,000 lives nationwide over the past five years — largely in areas far from traditional tourist destinations.

Total visits to Mexico grew by 2% last year over 2010, reports the federal Tourism Secretariat. But cruise ship dockings declined by 15% nationwide last year, and dropped a staggering 79% in Mazatlán, the biggest decline of any port in the country, according to the Communications and Transportation Secretariat.

Industry giants Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Disney Cruise Line stopped calling on Mazatlán last year. The liners altered itineraries to spend more time in Cabo San Lucas and Huatulco, and to include new destinations such as Manzanillo.

Cruise lines have also stopped calling on Acapulco. When they will return to Mazatlán remains uncertain.

"Discussions will continue with local authorities … to determine the appropriate time to resume port calls," Holland America Line said in statement.

Tourism officials say the cruise lines are steaming by because they can make more money heading to other ports of call, not because of safety concerns.

"It's because of the economy," said Oralia Rice, Sinaloa state tourism secretary, explaining that the cruise industry could probably make more money sending its ships to places such as Australia and the Mediterranean.

Rice says the cruise ships continue to visit stops that are more dangerous.

"The level of incidents in some of the ports of call they go are much higher than ours … L.A. or Miami, for example," Rice says, claiming the cruise lines may be going elsewhere to sell more expensive tickets.

Disney Cruise Line spokeswoman Lauren Falcone agreed that none of her company's passengers had experienced problems in Mazatlán. But she said there were good reasons for dropping it from the list.

"Evaluating itineraries is something Disney Cruise Line does on a regular basis, and we believe this revised itinerary offers the best possible family vacation experience for our guests," she said in an e-mail.

Crime figures from the Citizens' Council for Security and Criminal Justice show Mazatlán has Mexico's third-highest homicide rate — trailing Ciudad Juárez and Acapulco — with 71 murders per 100,000 residents. Mazatlán is in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, home to a drug cartel of the same name that has been blamed for violence in the region.

Book store owner and publisher David Bodwell says the figures on violence are deceptive, explaining that the county of Mazatlán stretches more than 50 miles inland and into parts of the Sierra Madre with long histories of illegal activities that predate tourism.

Crimes in rural zones and the periphery of the urban area are counted as happening in Mazatlán, but in "the tourist areas, along the beach, crime is negligible," said Bodwell, a former New Mexico native.

Crime does sometimes affect visitors.

Canadian Mike di Lorenzo was shot in the leg last year away from the main tourist areas of Mazatlán from an apparent stray bullet. Canadian tourist Sheila Nabb was badly beaten in a hotel elevator last month. Investigators blame the attack on a drunken Mexican man who allegedly had trespassed on the resort property.

Di Lorenzo and other tourists say Mazatlán remains a great place to visit and is relatively safe if you are not in the drug rackets. They agree the bad publicity has hurt.

On Avenida Playa Gaviotas in Mazatlán's "Zona Dorada," closed jewelry shops line the street, along with a shuttered sports bar known as the "No Name Cafe," where expats used to watch the Super Bowl.

"It used to be packed here … shoulder-to-shoulder," said retired Salt Lake City resident Manny Guevara, who has vacationed 24 times in Mazatlán and has never had a problem with crime.

Mexico hopes the 6,000 or so foreigners who live here year-round can help bring the port back as a destination. Some are being enlisted to speak of their good experiences in Mazatlán. Others, such as real estate agent Roger Culbertson, have formed a free service providing advice to visitors.

Figueroa hopes the effortworks. "Things won't get better until the cruise ships come back," he says.