Years ago, someone dubbed the string of port cities and resorts along Mexico's western coast "The Mexican Riviera" -- a marketing gimmick if ever there was one, but it wasn't a complete stretch. Blessed with miles of beaches, mountains, a perfect (and year-round) beach climate, and the cachet of being a playground for Hollywood royalty and jetsetters, the region had mojo.
It still does, but today, it's also got something else: worries.
The drug trade-related violence that has wracked Mexico over the past five years has begun spilling over from the border towns to what were previously peaceful resort areas. In early January, more than 30 people were killed in Acapulco alone, 15 of them by decapitation, and in an area just minutes from the tourist zone.
The port city of Mazatlan, too, has seen a strong uptick in violence, with two men shot just last month in the parking lot of a hotel frequented by tourists. Mazatlan is cited, along with Acapulco, in the current U.S. State Department travel advisory on Mexico, which notes that one of Mexico's most powerful drug cartels is based in Mazatlan's home state of Sinaloa. "[T]he city of Mazatlan has experienced a recent increase in violent crime," the advisory notes. "U.S. citizens should … exercise extreme caution when visiting."
The violence has begun having a severe impact on tourism -- a situation that's particularly noticeable when it comes to cruise tourism, since all it takes is one executive decision to pull a ship and all of its passengers out of a port or an entire market, and send them elsewhere.
And that's exactly what's going on.
On Monday, Carnival Cruise Lines (www.carnival.com) became the latest and most high-profile cruise line to announce that it was canceling upcoming calls by Carnival Splendor and Carnival Spirit to the port of Mazatlan. The line's official statement cited "recent security incidents" for the decision, and noted that "[a]lthough there have been no incidents involving cruise passengers, the safety of our guests and crew is our number one priority."
"We are working closely with the Mexican government and local officials to review their plans to improve security in all of the main tourist areas," the statement continued. "Once we are comfortable with their plans and implementation, we expect to return to Mazatlan. We are hopeful that this process can be completed within a short period of time."
Carnival's decision follows similar recent moves by Disney Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line, which respectively cited "the changing environment in Mazatlan" and "recent incidents of violence" in their decisions. Both lines' ships have replaced Mazatlan with an additional day in Cabo San Lucas.
At present, Holland America (www.hollandamerica.com) has not announced plans to cancel Mazatlan port calls. Princess (www.princess.com), for its part, is taking a wait-and-see approach. "Our next scheduled call to Mazatlan is Sapphire Princess on March 16," line representative Karen Candy said this week. "At this time, we haven't made any changes but as the safety and security of our passengers and crew is our highest priority, we're closely monitoring the situation."
Royal Caribbean(www.rccl.com) has essentially opted out of the Mexican Riviera altogether. Last year, the industry giant preemptively canceled 15 seven-night cruises that had been scheduled to sail from Los Angeles between January and April 2011 aboard Mariner of the Seas, which was until recently the largest ship sailing the region. Mariner is instead sailing this season in South America and Europe.
Royal Caribbean has not publicly cited cartel-related violence as a reason for the shift, but instead blamed economic realities -- which may, of course, be related. In a blog post made in the wake of Mariner's redeployment announcement, Royal Caribbean President Adam Goldstein stated that: "We truly wish we could justify the ship remaining in L.A., but we are unable to do so… There is no question that there are tens of thousands of loyal Royal Caribbean cruisers who live in the Western U.S. and cruise on Mariner of the Seas. And yes, she does normally go out full. Unfortunately, it is possible for both of these observations to be true and yet the ship does not perform at an acceptable level to be able to remain in California. Throughout the industry, ships normally go out full. The critical question is at what price? … [F]or now we are unable to generate acceptable levels of performance."
Currently, Royal Caribbean has only one cruise -- a 15-night westbound Panama Canal run in late April aboard Radiance of the Seas -- scheduled to call at any Mexican Riviera ports.
According to figures published by the cruise industry marketing group CLIA, the number of passengers sailing to the Mexican Riviera has fallen by about 23 percent since 2008. In addition to the affected Mexican ports, U.S. home ports for the region have also been suffering: San Diego will board about half the passengers it saw in 2010, and business is down about 72 percent from its 2008 high. Los Angeles will see a projected 20 percent drop from its 2010 capacity, and a 50 percent drop from 2008.
In the wake of recent incidents and ensuing cruise cancellations, Mazatlan beefed up security on the ground, adding plainclothes personnel to the existing security force in the main tourist areas and excursion sites. "Mazatlan is widely regarded as one of the safest destinations in Mexico, and has hosted nearly 1.5 million cruise passengers since 2008," said the Mazatlan Tourism Trust in an official statement. Nevertheless, the cruise business is clearly trending away, as other regions offer a more winning combination of popular appeal, ease of operations, and the lack of high-profile violence.
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