The largest US west coast travel firm specialising in student spring break travel says it has cancelled its planned trips to Baja California because of the crime crisis in Mexico.
Thousands of students from 50 colleges won’t head south, but will go east in coming weeks. Their new destination: Palm Springs.
“Many of our existing customers and their families are concerned as a result of the recent Mexico travel warnings issued by various government agencies,” said Thomas Jaenichen, owner of Summer Winter Action Tours (Swat) Travel in Costa Mesa, in an email to the Orange County Register.
The US state department has had a travel alert in place for over a year regarding rising drug cartel-related crime in northern Mexico. It was last renewed on 20 February. The Los Angeles office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) last week urged students to avoid northern Baja California during spring break.
Swat of Costa Mesa has sent waves of students to Mexico each of the past 12 years. The company had planned to send students on airline and luxury bus trips to San Felipe on the east coast of Baja California in Mexico.
The resort is known for its stunning beaches and warm azure water. Among the colleges sending students: Cal State Fullerton, Saddleback College, Irvine Valley College, Cal State Long Beach, Orange Coast College, Cal Lutheran and Arizona State University.
But Swat announced late on Friday night that it had pulled the plug on the plan because of worries expressed by parents and students.
“Therefore, we have made the decision to provide our customers with peace of mind for their Swat Spring Break 2009 experience,” Jaenichen said.
Drug violence claimed 6,290 people last year, double the previous year, and more than 1,000 in the first eight weeks of 2009.
The US state department travel alert reads in part: “The greatest increase in violence has occurred near the US border. However, US citizens travelling throughout Mexico should exercise caution in unfamiliar areas and be aware of their surroundings at all times.
Mexican and foreign bystanders have been injured or killed in violent attacks in cities across the country, demonstrating the heightened risk of violence in public places. In recent years, dozens of US citizens have been kidnapped across Mexico.”
The 2 March warning from the ATF specifically cautioned against student trips to Tijuana and Rosarito Beach. Some students on Swat tours would have had to pass through Tijuana on the drive to San Felipe. “San Felipe is one of the safest destinations in all of Baja California and Mexico,” lamented Jaenichen.
Palm Springs, its tourism industry hit hard by the national recession, has reversed course on its longstanding constraints on spring break. It now welcomes students and their dollars to the desert resort.
Area tourism officials e-mailed 55,000 18-to 27-year-olds in California, touting the city as once again ready to be a spring break party town.
In a story headlined “Did Sonny Bono Kill Spring Break?” the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs said the move was a change in 20 years of policy.
Pop singer-turned-mayor Sonny Bono had led a crackdown on public nudity, skimpy bathing suits and alcohol-fuelled parties after several high-profile incidents in the late 1980s.
Bono’s successor, Lloyd Marynov, nailed the coffin on spring break in Palm Springs with a 1991 ordinance that closed Palm Canyon Drive, the city’s main thoroughfare, to partying.
Business leaders are backing the outreach effort, which comes amid what many analysts have called the worst national recession since the Great Depression.
“I think this would be the shot in the arm that we need, badly,” Keith McCormick, chairman of the city’s business improvement district, told the Desert Sun.
Mexican officials have been waging an often uphill battle against news government alerts and news reports about violence in northern Mexico, including the area around Tijuana, just south of San Diego. They argue that the violence is between drug cartels in areas not frequented by tourists.
Tourist trips south to Baja California have dropped as much as 60% since a mid-2007 peak, according to Mexican tourism officials. The trend has accelerated because of the recession.
Events such as the Newport-Ensenada Boat Race have said participants are either dropping out or changing their travel plans to go by sea in both directions instead of travelling north by car or bus.