Mexico Travel Advisory: What the State Department's Updates Mean for Travel

Mazatlan hotel zone
Mazatlan // Photo by jmatzick/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Last week, the U.S. State Department unveiled a new Travel Advisory format for imparting global security information. The streamlined system is designed to avoid some of the old confusion about “Travel Warnings” versus “Travel Alerts.”

“This is the biggest overhaul in a very long time,” said Michelle Bernier-Toth in a January 10 conference call with media. Bernier-Toth is acting deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens services for the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

The new system assigns every country in the world a ranking on a four-level Travel Advisory scale. They range from Level 1, “Exercise Normal Precautions” to Level 4, “Do Not Travel.”

Mexico received a “Level 2” designation, which advises travelers to “Exercise Increased Caution: Be aware of heightened risks to safety and security.” That’s the same ranking as other popular travel destinations for U.S. citizens, such as the U.K., France and Italy.

The new Travel Advisories do, in some instances, provide separate ratings for specific areas within a country. That’s where things get a little dicey for individual Mexican states.

“The differences regarding the states relate to U.S. government personnel in Mexico. We wanted to make sure that the U.S. traveling public is aware of all restrictions that we impose upon ourselves in Mexico,” said Bernier-Toth. "It’s more clearly spelled out now."

On a state-by-state basis, popular spots such as Cancun, Playa del Carmen, the Riviera Maya, Tulum, Los Cabos and Mexico City maintain a “Level 2” designation.

That’s welcome news for the beach destinations, after a somewhat bumpy ride of late. In August 2017, they were singled out in an updated travel warning for Mexico. The first-time-ever mention was prompted by an increase in drug-related violence.

The newest advisory does note that “turf battles between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime in areas frequented by U.S. citizens. Bystanders have been injured or killed in shooting incidents.”

Still, at “Level 2,” Mexico’s top destinations fare better than some of their counterparts.

Jalisco, which includes Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta, and Nayarit, which includes the Riviera Nayarit, Nuevo Vallarta and Bahia de Banderas, are listed as “Level 3.” That status comes with the caution to “Reconsider Travel: Avoid travel due to serious risks to safety and security.”

In parts of Jalisco, “violent crime and gang activity are common.” Accordingly, the State Department imposes travel restrictions for U.S. government employees there, though not for stays in the Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta, Chapala and Ajijic tourist areas.

In Nayarit, government employees are prohibited from travel in most of the state, with the exception of the Riviera Nayarit.

Those restrictions are essentially the same as in the August 2017 update.

Five Mexican states are categorized as “Level 4-Do Not Travel,” described as “the highest advisory level due to greater likelihood of life-threatening risks.”

The “Level 4” states are Tamaulipas, on the northern border, as well as the Pacific coast states of Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán and Sinaloa.

Lumping those states in the same “Level 4” category as Iraq, North Korea, Libya and Yemen is rattling nerves, to say the least.

Sinaloa is home to the port city of Mazatlán, which will host Tianguis Turistico in 2018.

Guerrero is home to Acapulco, Ixtapa, Taxco and Zihuatanejo. The state’s secretary of tourism, Ernesto Rodriguez Escalona, had this response to the “Level 4” designation:

“We have always been respectful of the need for the State Department to advise its citizens on precautions when traveling abroad, but we consider this advisory to be inexact and alarmist, and not a characterization of the real situation at Guerrero’s tourist destinations,” said Rodriguez.

He noted that tourism to the state grew by 40 percent in 2017 over 2016. The port of Acapulco saw a 78 percent increase in cruise arrivals in 2017, and the city will homeport the 1,400 passenger Magellan cruise ship of Cruise and Maritime Voyages as of 2019.

“These figures attest the confidence of tourists in Guerrero’s destinations. It’s also noteworthy that there are over 400 events and congresses every year in Guerrero, such as the Mexican Tennis Open,” said Rodriquez.

Nicolás Domínguez, operations managing director of Hamak Hotels, says it’s important to keep things in perspective.

“People talk about Mexico as a country, but it’s not the whole country that has problems. There are parts of L.A. where you wouldn’t go. The media love to talk about bad stuff. As a whole, Mexico is very safe,” Domínguez tells Travel Agent.

In Central and South America, a number of countries received a “Level 1” designation. They include Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.

Brazil, Colombia and Nicaragua are designated as “Level 2” destinations. While, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Venezuela are in the “Level 3” category.

In recent published reports, Venezuelan officials have indicated the country would like to recover its tourism footing. But, the new Travel Advisory is not likely to help. It urges citizens to “reconsider travel to Venezuela due to crime, civil unrest, poor health infrastructure, and arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens.” It cites public unrest, food, water and medical shortages as reasons to stay away.

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