Tourism in Mexico is up again despite the perception that it is not safe because of the drug-related violence that has claimed thousands of Mexican lives in recent years, according to a binational panel in San Diego on Tuesday.
"The perception is that we are losing ground but it's the other way," said Ernesto Coppel Kelly, one of Mexico's leading tourism entrepreneurs.
Coppel was speaking at a roundtable discussion organized by the Mexico Center of the San Diego Regional Chamber that focused on U.S tourism to Mexico.
The panel included Baja California, Tijuana and San Diego tourism and transportation officials and the editor-in-chief of the San Diego Business Journal.
Coppel, chairman of the Pueblo Bonito resorts and spas in Mazatlan and Los Cabos, said more than 22 million foreign tourists visited Mexico last year, a 12 percent increase from the previous year and another increase is expected this year. More than six million visitors last year were Americans, he said.
"With better news from the media we could have better business," Coppel said.
He said later during an interview that tourism was up largely because prices were cut to attract foreign visitors.
"We have bargains. Our prices are so low because of the economy and because of the bad media we've been getting," Coppel said. "Our rates are the lowest."
Most of the panelists faulted the news media for fueling the perception that Mexico is not safe.
Reo Carr, editor-in-chief of the San Diego Business Journal, said journalists were doing their jobs reporting events taking place in Mexico.
"I don't think we're reporting things that aren't happening."
"I know that they are true," Coppel said. "But let's confine it to its correct proportion."
Panelists expressed concern that the drug-related violence in Mexico continued to overshadow the positive economic ties between the two countries. The violence also was not being put in the proper context for the average American to understand.
"We have a problem. Of course we do," Coppel said. "But we're making lots of progress. Ninety nine percent of the people who die are criminals," he said. "The roots of the problem are being attacked. We are winning this fight against these gangs. We cannot finish it in one month. It's going to take a few years or more. We want order. We want peace."
Carr agreed the news media need to provide more balanced coverage of Mexico but that the country's image is going to take a while to change.
"A few spectacular crime sprees by the drug cartels completely change the perception," he said.
Juan Tintos Funcke, Baja California's secretary of tourism, replied, "Yes, we do have our Columbines. We do have our incidents where a violent act makes the front page but it's the same in other countries."
Mariano Escobedo, president of the Tijuana Convention and Visitors Bureau, said tourist spots in the city remain safe and Americans are starting to return to visit.
"To us violence is almost a non-issue," Escobedo said. He noted a 26 percent increase in American travelers visiting Tijuana last year as compared to 2009.
"There's violence in Tijuana, in the hills. It's gangs versus gangs. They're not targeting Americans. There is no spillover into tourist sections," Escobedo said.
In fact, a much of the crime that occurs in Tijuana occurs in its eastern and southern neighborhoods, far away from financial and tourist districts.
Sporadically, though, there have been killings in these commercial areas, mostly involving street-level drug dealers, according to authorities.
His biggest concern is that violence happening in other Mexican border states will be associated with Tijuana and continue to cast a negative image over the city, he said.
Tintos said his office earlier this year formed a Baja California image committee made up of Americans who live in the Mexican border state who want to get the word out that it is a safe place to visit and live. It has also hired a public relations firm to "go after the news media, in a good way."
"There are a lot of good things happening in Baja that we have not been very good at promoting," Tintos said.