Allyson Doorn says she thought long and hard before deciding to go to Cancun, Mexico, for spring break this year. Drug-related violence and the slumping U.S. economy had made her wary.
In the end, Doorn, a DePaul University junior from Chicago, decided to take the plunge — but, unlike last year, she'll be sticking to the resort areas, cutting back on day trips and watching her pennies more.
"We don't want to leave the hotel zone much," Doorn said by telephone from Chicago.
Across Mexico, tourism officials say they're seeing similar behavior from American spring breakers, an important source of income for the country.
So far in March, visits by college students are down 5% to 15% in some major resort areas compared with the same period last year. And, like Doorn, they're sticking to the beaches and spending less when they get here, officials say.
"It's partly due to the economic crisis, but also to the violent events that are getting so much publicity in the United States," said Oscar Rivero, president of the Puerto Vallarta Hotel Association. "(Tourism) has gone down even though the bulk of the violence is on the border, not in places like Puerto Vallarta."
Murders in Mexico have spiked in recent months as traffickers battle each other for smuggling routes and fight a crackdown by President Felipe Calderon's government.
U.S. universities from California to Nebraska have warned students about the risks of traveling to Mexico. The State Department issued a travel alert last month warning of risks in border areas.
At the same time, college students face an uncertain future as they prepare for graduation. Unemployment in the United States hit a 25-year high of 8.1% in February.
Resorts are feeling the pinch:
• In Cancun, the number of spring breakers is down about 10%, said Rodrigo de la Pena, president of the Cancun Hotel Association.
Hotel occupancy rates are averaging 77.5% this month compared with 84.8% in March 2008 — though that's partly because the city has added hotel rooms in the past year, de la Pena said.
He said the city expects about 25,000 spring breakers this year.
•Los Cabos, which includes Cabo San Lucas, has seen a 5% decline in spring breakers, said Miroslava Bautista, director of the city's tourism department.
Some restaurants are complaining of a 30% to 40% drop in business as students stay inside their hotels, said Ruben Samayoa, director of the local tourism chamber of commerce.
• In Puerto Vallarta, hotel occupancy is averaging 75% this month, down from about 90% this time last year, said Rivero, of the hotel association.
Amid the uncertain economy, de la Pena said college students are waiting until the last minute before deciding to travel.
"In years past, we had reservations three or four months ahead. That's not happening this year," he said.
The declines come even as the global economic slump has made Mexican vacations cheaper. Mexico's peso has weakened from 9.9 to the dollar in July to around 14.2 as of Wednesday, meaning American vacationers' money goes further. Airfares have dropped because of lower oil prices.
Doorn said she and her boyfriend considered going to Hawaii, Las Vegas or the Bahamas, instead, but discovered that Cancun was more affordable.
They got airplane tickets for $640 apiece — about half the price they paid last year.
"I am a broke college student, but Cancun actually was one of the cheaper of our choices," Doorn said.
Hawley is Latin America correspondent for USA TODAY and The Arizona Republic. Contributing: Sergio Solache.