The recent spate of violence against Canadian tourists in Mexico might deter some sun-seekers, but experts say it won’t significantly ebb the flow of vacationers who flock to the popular sun destination every year.
Martha Chapman, a travel expert at Toronto-based Tourism Marketing International, says she can understand why the latest string of incidents -- in particular, the weekend attack of a Calgary woman at a five-star resort in Mazatlan -- has spooked some travellers.
“This most recent case was a very compelling one -- it was an attractive woman, she did the right things, she did not stray off property,” says Chapman.
By all accounts, 37-year-old Sheila Nabb, who is currently awaiting surgery to repair shattered bones in her face, was an average, resort-going tourist, a description that sets her apart from many of the other victims, who had some kind of local connection to a country embroiled in an escalating drug war.
But however tragic Nabb’s case, Chapman doesn’t expect it to take a big bite out of tourism from Canada to Mexico -- a longstanding tradition that has been decades in the making.
“There are so many hundreds of thousands of Canadians that travel to Mexico on a regular basis, that many regard it as a second home,” she says. “A lot of it is about the comfort level -- the people who have been going for years, they feel quite comfortable going back.”
Amanda Pratt, spokeswoman for the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies, concurs.
“People that have been [to Mexico] really aren’t fazed by this,” she says. “It’s really more people who have never been or are thinking about taking their first trip, that they’re not really as certain about what is happening and how safe it is.”
London, Ont., resident Joelle Riddell, who is heading to Mexico in late February, has been vacationing with her family in Zihuatenajo on the Pacific Coast near the popular tourist town of Xtapa for the past 10 years.
Though she is aware of the violence towards tourists, Riddell, who also imports tile from Mexico, is not changing her plans.
“We think about it a little bit and we do have a lot of people say to us, ‘Why are you going there? There’s lots of other places to go to.’ But there’s crime everywhere,” she says, describing the Nabb case as “odd -- just as odd as it would be here.”
Riddell is not alone. Against the backdrop of growing unrest in Mexico in recent years, a record 1.6 million Canadians visited in 2010, making Mexico the most popular travel destination after the U.S. -- a designation it has held since 2006.
As Marion Joppe, Research Chair in Tourism at the University of Guelph, points out, even in 2009, when overall tourism to Mexico dipped during the H1N1 bird flu scare, the number of visitors from Canada continued to grow, despite the fact that “there was violence even then and Canadians getting killed.”
Over the past five years, murder, accidents and suicides have claimed the lives of 112 Canadians in Mexico, according to the federal Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT). Recent incidents include the deaths of Ximena Osegueda and Robin Wood, who were killed in unrelated attacks earlier this month.
All of which is enough to prompt Carrie Burrows and her family to choose another sun destination.
Despite vacationing in Mexico for several years, the 37-year-old mother of three from Georgetown, Ont., says the brutality of the attack on Nabb is impossible to reconcile.
“We go once or twice a year and I’ve always said, ‘Yeah, it’s fine.’ We’ve never seen anything shady or something that would turn us off, but just hearing that, I’m not going back,” she says. “It happened at a hotel where you think you’re safe -- that’s what rocked me.”
Though Pratt declined to comment on the Nabb case while details are emerging, she concedes that it does seem different than previous incidents.
Nabb, who was vacationing with her husband at Mazatlan’s Hotel Riu Emerald, was found in a pool of blood in an elevator on Saturday.
CTV reported on Wednesday that Mexican authorities were preparing to make an announcement regarding the investigation after recovering video footage from the hotel “that will help explain what happened that night.”
Nabb emerged from a medically induced coma on Tuesday, but surgery was delayed after she contracted pneumonia.
If Canadians do start to stay away, it could have serious implications for Mexico, where tourism accounts for roughly eight per cent of the economy. In 2010, Canadians spent more than $1.4 billion in the country.
But Michael Mulvey, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management, says that random acts of violence don't tend to have as significant an impact on consumer behaviour as other threats to safety.
“A natural disaster is going to shut down a place right away pretty much. That’s a profound economic impact that’s immediate,” he says.
In Japan, for instance, the World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that last year’s tsunami took a $9-billion bite out of the tourism industry’s contribution to GDP.
The threat of illness can also take a significant economic toll: In late 2003, a survey by KPMG found that the SARS outbreak had cost Canada more than $1 billion in tourism dollars.
When it comes to violent incidents, Mulvey says that the most economically damaging variety are those that represent targeted attacks aimed at tourists, such as the terrorist bombing of a Bali nightclub that killed dozens of tourists in 2002.
Chapman echoes this sentiment, maintaining that in the absence of an official travel alert from the Canadian government, it would take a “continuous assault of visitors -- a clearly defined strategy to attack tourists and affect tourism in large numbers” to substantially alter consumer behaviour.
“Not these apparently random situations in Mexico,” she says.
At present, the federal government recommends that Canadians “avoid all non-essential travel” to the Mexico-U.S. border area, which is notorious for drug-related violence. But elsewhere, Ottawa advises that Canadians “exercise a high degree of caution” -- a level of warning common among many Latin American and Caribbean countries.
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