Canadians looking for a break from winter are still booking travel to Mexico, despite violence last week that led to the cancellation of flights and a federal advisory telling visitors to exercise a high degree of caution in the country.
The arrest of a drug cartel leader on Jan. 5 sparked violence in Sinaloa state in the northwest part of the country, particularly in Culiacán, Mazatlan, Los Mochis and Guasave, with exchanges of gunfire, vehicles set on fire and threats to infrastructure, including airports.
General Rafael Buelna International Airport, also known as Mazatlán International Airport, was closed, forcing the cancellation of scheduled international flights to and from Western Canada, including Vancouver on Friday.
“Lucky for us, we did not have any clients on the affected flights,” said Cathy Scott, chief explorations officer of Departures Travel. “A girlfriend of mine, who lives in the city, said that while things are moving along normally today, the city seems eerily quiet.”
On Friday, flights by Westjet and Sunwing from Vancouver to Mazatlán International Airport were cancelled in either direction, resulting in vacationers missing their flights and delaying their return home.
Flights to and from Mazatlán returned to normal the next day, but travel agents say the incident is a reminder that visitors need to be vigilant.
Scott noted, however, that tourism is the “life-blood” of Mexico. “Even the drug cartels realize that it is in their best interests not to target tourists.”
While she would not recommend visiting Mazatlán at the moment, Scott called Mexico a “big and diverse country, with plenty of other beautiful places to go,” adding: “It would be a shame to paint the entire country with the same brush.”
Scott said people seem “fiercely determined” to travel this year, after delaying their plans for a couple of years due to the pandemic, and Mexico is a favourite destination for many Canadians — an easy getaway for thousands of visitors from the West Coast looking for an all-inclusive holiday.
Mazatlán is one of the top five destinations in the country, which also include Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos, Huatulco and Ixtapa.
Claire Newell, president of Travel Best Bets in Vancouver, says the number of people enquiring about Mexican vacations hasn’t dropped, despite the recent violence
She noted that those whose flights to Mazatlán were cancelled on Friday were given the option of changing their travel plans or delaying their trips, and many chose to travel to other locations in Mexico, such as Los Cabos.
Newell said the recent violence was a “huge” reminder for travellers to take three minutes to register their trips with the government, and include a contact phone number and email address so the government can contact them in case of an emergency.
Newell, who has been in the industry for 30 years, said registering is especially important for the legions of Canadian “snowbirds” who take up residence in Mexico for several months every year.
Those she has talked with still feel safe in the country and are choosing to stay, she said. “It really depends on their location. We had three agents who were with our clients last week in the beach area. They were unaware of the violence that took place until we called them to enquire about their safety,” she said.
She also recommends travellers download the federal government’s Travel Smart application on a cellphone to receive up-to-date notifications of travel advisories for various destinations.