Tourism officials concerned about possible damage to Mexico’s image from reports of drug violence have launched a campaign to convince visitors it is safe, hoping to maintain growth in a vital industry.

Mexico’s tourism has continued to grow despite the drug violence and the U.S. recession, with international visits up 2 percent in the first quarter of 2009 from the same period of 2008, Carlos Behnsen, executive director of the Mexico Tourism Board, told reporters in New York on Wednesday.

That followed a full year in 2008 in which international visits rose 5.9 percent from 2007, Behnsen said, with U.S. tourists accounting for 80 percent of the total.

“It is a victory, I think,” Behnsen said. “Our concern is looking forward.”

Tourism was a $13.3 billion industry in 2008, ranking it third behind oil and remittances from Mexicans living abroad, he said.

Violence involving drug cartels and security forces killed an estimated 6,300 people last year, leading the U.S. State Department to issue a travel alert on Feb. 20 for U.S. citizens living and traveling in Mexico.

The U.S. alert, which superseded an alert from Oct. 15, 2008, generated increased media attention that officials are attempting to counter by reassuring visitors that the most popular destinations remain safe.

“The violence is basically contained in the northwest of the country in five municipalities,” Behnsen said, naming Tijuana, Nogales and Ciudad Juarez along the U.S. border plus Chihuahua and Culiacan, where drug traffickers operate to feed what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently called an insatiable U.S. appetite for illegal drugs.

The Mexican resort of Los Cabos is nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Tijuana and Cancun is some 2,000 miles (3,220 km) away, he said.

The U.S. recession may be helping Mexican tourism because U.S. visitors could be choosing Mexico over destinations that are more expensive and further away, Behnsen said. Moreover, the weaker Mexican peso — which hit a 16-year low against the U.S. dollar on March 9 — could also be attracting U.S. visitors, he said.