Mexico is experiencing its bloodiest year of drug violence yet, but that's not stopping domestic and international vacationers alike from flocking to Cancun.
The resort city on the Mexican Caribbean coast, the Riviera Maya coastline below it and the Pacific coast resort of Puerto Vallarta will be named top destinations this year by Orbitz travel website, based on flights and hotel bookings, said spokeswoman Marita Hudson Thomas.
On the Pacific coast, Acapulco Mayor Jose Luis Avila Sanchez is predicting a huge turnout of Mexican travelers, with hotels expected to be nearly full for Christmas and New Year's Day.
Tourism officials in Mexico and the U.S. say holiday travel to Mexico is up from a year ago as vacationers cash in on low-cost tropical holidays.
Tourism revenue is up 7.1 percent in the first 10 months of 2010, compared to the same months of 2009, with visitors spending $9.8 billion, according to the Mexican Tourism Ministry.
Safety is a problem "only in some parts of Mexico" and it "has not affected the major tourist areas of the country," said Miguel Torruco Marques, the president of the National Tourism Confederation, which represents the tourism industry.
The confederation projects that about 22.4 million foreigners will have vacationed in Mexico in 2010, a 4.7 percent increase from last year. Adding in the flood of domestic travelers, the group expects 16.1 million tourists throughout the country for December alone.
Air travel to Mexico is up 6 percent this year compared to 2009, according to American Express Travel data, said travel specialist Linda D'Arcy: It's "all about the value."
A trip for two from Denver, Colorado, to Cancun now costs as little as $823 per person for airfare and five nights at a hotel, according to the Orbitz site. A trip from the U.S. to the Caribbean could cost double, said Chris Russo, president of the American Society of Travel Agents.
"We've had to do a lot of explaining that the Riviera Maya is a long way from the border. It's just taken more education," he said. "We have a big map and we show them."
The Texas Department of Safety warned residents last week not to travel to Mexico for the holidays because of drug cartel violence in northern border cities, as well as in popular tourist towns such as Acapulco.
The Mexican Tourism Ministry retorted by urging "anyone considering a vacation to Mexico to speak with any of the millions of Americans, Canadians, and other foreign nationals who chose to vacation at our resorts this year."
The government says most of the violence takes place among the drug cartels themselves. More than 30,000 have died in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led offense to quash the cartels in 2006.
Crime figures also show the level of violence varies wildly across the country. The homicide rate in the border state of Chihuahua last year was a horrifying 74 per 100,000. Levels in some other states such as Yucatan, Queretaro or Baja California Sur -- where the Los Cabos resorts are located -- were 5 per 100,000 or less, which is low to average even by U.S. standards.
In the western state of Michoacan, Calderon's home state, suspected henchmen from the La Familia cartel battled state and federal police in shootouts for days this month near the state's capital, Morelia, killing three civilians, including an 8-month-old baby and a teenage girl.
Morelia is on the quaint-colonial-city tourist circuit, but it's not a draw on the scale of Puerto Vallarta, Huatulco or Cancun.
Cancun's hotel occupancy rate was about 77 percent for the first days of December, compared to 51 percent during the same time last year, said Rodrigo de la Pena Segura, president of the city's hotel association. He said the hotels expect occupancy rates as high as 85 percent for Christmas and New Year.
In Cuernavaca, a city about 40 miles (65 kilometers) south of Mexico City that is popular with the capital's elite and U.S. retirees, five-star hotels had 90 percent occupancy rates during the Dec. 12 holiday weekend celebrating the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, said Alfredo De La Torre Nunez, a spokesman with the Morelos Tourism Department. That is despite recent battles for control of drug routes through the state by factions of the former Beltran Leyva Cartel.
The same cartel war has affected foreign tourism in Acapulco, where two decapitated bodies were hung from a bridge recently, their amputated hands holding two severed heads.
"Americans are just not coming," said Jonathan Fabian, who owns a company that rents villas in the city and runs the website, Real Acapulco, a community forum for businesses and tourists. "I would say tourism hasn't just been in decline; it's fallen off a cliff. Business has been absolutely horrible."
But Mexicans are still coming, and the Department of Public Safety in Guerrero, where Acapulco is located, said it would have almost 7,400 state and federal police around the city's beaches from Dec. 17 to Jan. 9, some in rafts and helicopters.
Torruco Marques said Mexican visitors understand the limits of the drug war.
In Huatulco, located in the state of Oaxaca bordering Guerrero, tourism revenue was up slightly this year at $274 million, compared to $262 million last year. Agustin Pumajero, project director for the new El Secreto resort, said Huatulco is one of the safest places in the country.
"You can go out and walk at 1 a.m. and nothing happens," he said.
Associated Press writers Lorena Moguel in Puerto Vallarta; Gabriel Alcocer in Cancun; and Sergio Flores in Acapulco contributed to this report.