Oaxaca Reels Under Violent Protests

Up until several months ago, Oaxaca had a blemish-free reputation as Mexico's foremost colonial city, a historic gem known for its silver jewelry, cooking classes, sweeping zócalo (plaza) and nearby archaeological treasures. The city has been transformed in the last five months, however, as street protests have escalated. Traditional Day of the Dead ceremonies in Oaxaca took a macabre turn; the tally of dead protesters now totals at least eight, possibly as many as 13, including the American journalist Bradley Roland Will, who was shot last week by police as he was covering a protest that turned violent.  A bad moon is rising over the Santo Domingo Church in Oaxaca, Mexico

The protests began in May as a teacher's strike, and spiraled into violence as additional protesters joined in the demands for the ouster of Oaxaca's governor, Ulises Ruiz, who they accuse of corruption and repression, as well as rigging the previous election. As street blockades and peaceful marches spiraled into car hijackings and arson, President Vicente Fox sent 4,500 federal police to quell the protests. Although the city is now under tenuous control, rage still seethes underneath and no one pretends the problem has been solved. Last Monday, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Tony Garza, urged Americans to avoid traveling to the city of Oaxaca.

The Mexico Tourism Board stated, "Since Oaxaca City has been the site of demonstrations recently, we recommend that visitors redirect their travels to OaxacaState's other tourism destinations, including the resort cities of Huatulco and Puerto Escondido. These destinations are located far from these demonstrations and have not been affected by the current protests."

Due to the violence, some tour operators are having second thoughts about Oaxaca. Austin-Lehman Adventures canceled both their October and December Oaxaca programs. "These trips were full when they were cancelled," says Dave Wiggins, director of marketing and communications for Austin-Lehman Adventures. "Participants understood the need for the cancellations. The word on the street is that even though tourists are not targeted, Oaxaca is still a dangerous place to be at this time, especially with federal troops in the city." Wiggins notes that it's especially difficult for receptive operators, local guides, hotels and restaurants. "These people depend on tourism for their livelihood."

Mexico comprises about 10 percent of Pleasant Holidays' current annual passenger and revenue volume, and this figure is growing at a rate of 30 to 35 percent a year. "We are not currently selling Oaxaca and have not since the civil unrest there became violent," says Ken Phillips, staff vice president of corporate communications. "We have not felt any repercussions in other parts of Mexico due to the difficulties in that small destination, nor do we anticipate any changes in our offerings in other parts of the country."

Oaxaca lies inland, 180 miles from the Pacific coast city of Escondido. It appears that cruise lines are less affected by the violence in Oaxaca and in Acapulco. "Nothing is affected so far," says Jennifer de la Cruz, Carnival Cruise Lines' spokeswoman. She notes that the company's eight-day program is currently running through Acapulco, a Mexican destination that has recently seen a spate of drug-related violence. "We have not had to alter the itinerary so far," says Cruz. "Anytime a situation arises we keep an eye on it." Cruz notes that Carnival employs on-site port agents to supply the company with accurate information. Mexico has seen a 3.8 percent dip in visitor arrivals.

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