By Andres Oppenheimer

As weird as it seems, despite the daily headlines of gun battles, beheadings and more than 47,000 deaths in drug-related violence over the past five years, Mexico is receiving record numbers of foreign tourists.

How come? I asked Mexico's Secretary of Tourism Gloria Guevara. Are foreign tourists oblivious of the violence, or have you found a way to offset negative headlines with a brilliant public relations campaign?

Mexico announced recently that it received a record 22.7 million international visitors in 2011, a 2 percent increase from 2010, and a 6 percent increase from 2009. Tourism has been increasing despite setbacks, such as the state of Texas' three-year-old travel advisory warning its residents not to cross over to Mexico because of drug cartel violence.

Guevara, a former travel industry executive who lived for four years in Miami before taking her government job, gave me four major reasons for the increase in foreign tourism.

First, predictably, she cited Mexico's rich history, culture, hospitality of its people and world-class hotel resorts, which make it by far the number one foreign destination for American tourists. A recent survey of 10,000 foreign tourists in Mexico revealed that 98 percent of them were repeat visitors, which is a key sign of approval, she said.

Second, Mexico's drug related violence is concentrated in only 80 or the country's 2,500 counties, and those 80 don't include tourism destinations, she said. Indeed, Mexico's overall homicide rate of 18 people per 100,000 inhabitants is lower than that of Honduras (86), Venezuela (67) and Brazil's (25), according to United Nations data.

Third, Mexico has significantly eased its visa requirements for foreign tourists. Starting in 2010, Mexico has given automatic entry visas to anyone with a U.S. visa.

In addition, Mexico started an electronic visa application system for Brazilian, Russian and Chinese citizens, allowing them to apply for a Mexican visa online instead of having to travel to their countries' capitals to get visas at the Mexican consulate. That has resulted in a net addition of 500,000 foreign visitors to Mexico over the past year and a half, she said.

Now, Mexico is talking with other Latin American countries to unify their visa systems to attract third-country tourists.

"The idea is to go to a single Latin American visa, much like they have in Europe," Guevara said. "We are in an era of multi-destination tourism, in which when you go to Europe or Asia, you don't just visit one country. Latin America is in diapers in that respect."

Fourth, since 2010, the Mexican government has gone on the offensive to tell its side of the story. "There was an information vacuum. We changed our strategy, and became more proactive," she said.

Skeptics note that the violence is taking a toll on foreign tourism to Mexico, especially in the number of U.S. visitors, whose numbers declined slightly last year. Also, Mexico's overall rise in foreign arrivals took place amid a world-wide rise in tourism in recent years, they say.

To put Mexico's tourism figures in perspective, while the number of foreign arrivals to Mexico rose by 2 percent last year, the number of foreign arrivals world-wide grew by 4.4 percent last year, according to a new report by the United Nations' International Tourism Organization. International visitors to South America rose by 10 percent last year, and to Europe and Asia by 4 percent.

In fact, Mexico and Latin America are way behind other regions in the number of foreign tourists they attract, the WTO figures show. Europe received 503 million foreign visitors last year, Asia 216 million, and Latin America -- including Mexico -- fewer than 80 million.

My opinion: Given its daily headlines of violence, Mexico has not done too badly on the tourism front. But when you take into account its natural beauties, its culture and the hospitality of its people, Mexico should be getting twice as many foreign tourists.

As I proposed in this column three years ago, it's time for Mexico and all other Latin American countries to create a common Latin American visa that allows Americans, Europeans and Asians to visit all countries in the region without visa hassles. When it comes to tourism, Mexico and its neighbors are sitting on a gold mine.



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World - Mexico's Violence is Up, and So is Tourism | Global Viewpoint