Mexico counters violent image with U.S. ad campaign

WASHINGTON Fri May 13, 2011 5:49am EDT

U.S. students on their Spring Break enjoy drinks at a beach in Cancun March 8, 2011. REUTERS/Gerardo Garcia

U.S. students on their Spring Break enjoy drinks at a beach in Cancun March 8, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Gerardo Garcia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mexico has launched an ad campaign to counter its image as a dangerous country and the negative impact on its vital tourist industry of U.S. travel alerts warning Americans of violence south of the border.

"Those travel alerts that were headlining 'If you want to stay alive, don't travel to Mexico,' we felt they were not only totally inaccurate but irresponsible," Mexico Tourism Board CEO Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete told Reuters on Thursday.

Mexico is spending millions of dollars on print media and billboard ads in U.S. cities showing its ancient pyramids and sunny beaches to sway Americans from cancelling their visits.

While thousands of American tourists have been scared away by the brutal drug war raging in parts of Mexico, Lopez-Negrete said the volume of people visiting Mexican resorts was back up to 2008 levels, although revenues were down because hotels were offering cheaper deals to draw wavering tourists.

"We were able to drive volume upwards at a cost of lower pricing but we are happy with that because as in any other business, volume comes back first, then you start escalating to the proper pricing," he said. "That's the strategy."

Lopez-Negrete said the inaccurate travel alerts were hurting tourism, which accounts for 9 percent of Mexico's economic output and is its third biggest source of foreign currency.

The drug violence is occurring far from the most popular resorts such as Cancun, Huatulco, Ixtapa, Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos, the Mexican official said, urging U.S. authorities to be more specific in their alerts.

In March, the Texas Department of Public Safety warned college revellers not to travel to Mexico for spring break with the message: "Stay alive."

A U.S. State Department advisory issued over the Easter weekend urged U.S. citizens to avoid all but essential travel to 10 states in northern and central Mexico due to "ongoing violence and persistent security concerns."

While major Mexican resorts were half empty earlier this year, Lopez-Negrete said they were almost full at Easter.

Foreign visitors spent $11.9 billion last year in Mexico, up 5 percent from 2009 when the global economic crisis and H1N1 virus scares took their toll on global tourism. But 2010 figures were still down 10 percent from $13.3 billion in 2008.

More than 37,000 people have been killed in Mexico since late 2006 when President Felipe Calderon took office and sent the Mexican armed forces to crush powerful cartels battling for lucrative smuggling routes to the United States.

Lopez-Negrete said investors trusted the government was going to quell the violence and continued to expand in Mexico.

Luxury hotels are being built in the Riviera Maya and other resort areas by the world's top hotelier InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG.N) (IHG.L), Spain's largest chain Sol Melia SOL.MC, Hilton hotels (HLT.N), Starwood Hotels & Resorts (HOT.N) and AM Resorts LLC, Lopez-Negrete said.

"The appetite continues to be there, because investors know tourism has always been very profitable in Mexico and the quality and value is second to none," he said. "There is confidence in initiatives President Calderon has taken." For more on hotel investments, click on (Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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