ACAPULCO, Mexico – Fear of terrorism far from home has caused record numbers of Americans to visit peaceful, nearby Mexico since the Sept. 11 attacks, but now drug-related violence and political upheaval are pushing them back, officials and analysts say.

The number of foreign tourists visiting Mexico – the vast majority of them Americans – has fallen by 4 percent so far this year, and several parts of the country have become subject to U.S. travel advisories similar to those issued for the violence-troubled U.S.-Mexico border.

Mexico is the top foreign tourist destination for Texans. American Airlines has a direct Dallas-Acapulco flight during the winter tourist season, and one North Texas travel agent said about half the ocean cruises he sells pass through Mexican ports.

But a generalized feeling of insecurity and government inaction in Mexico is reverberating across the U.S. border and threatens more than just the tourism industry if left unchecked, analysts said.

“What we’re witnessing in Mexico is a social breakdown that carries ramifications for all sectors of society,” said Ana Maria Salazar, political commentator in Mexico City and former Pentagon official. “People just don’t feel safe anymore.”

Last week, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza elevated a travel warning for Oaxaca City, a center of cultural tourism, after the killing of an American and the intervention of federal police to end a five-month protest by teachers and leftist groups.

“U.S. cititzens should avoid any travel to Oaxaca City, and if they must travel there, they should exercise extreme caution throughout the state of Oaxaca until the government of Mexico restores order to the area,” Garza said in a statement.

The slain American was New York-based cameraman Bradley Roland Will, 36, of the media organization Indynews. He was shot to death along with two Mexicans. Protesters have blamed police for shootings against them in recent months that have taken at least a dozen lives.

While top tourist destinations like Cancun and the Mayan Riviera have been hit harder by hurricanes than by crime, other popular tourist areas are raising reds flags at home and abroad.

Assassinations by drug trafficking groups in and around Acapulco have become an almost daily occurrence, and severed heads have been left in tourist areas. Police have been attacked with grenades in Acapulco and another Guerrero state resort, Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo.

“With soldiers with machine guns patrolling the beaches, you can become a little nervous as a tourist,” said political commentator Homero Aridjis.

Those violent images of Mexico, if they persist, can destroy local tourism economies, as they have in Oaxaca, Aridjis said.

The central state of Michoacan, which hosts touristy Day of the Dead celebrations, has become the latest narco killing field. Five severed heads were recently thrown on the dance floor of a disco popular with locals in the town of Uruapan, part of the tourist corridor that includes Patzcuaro and Morelia.

Mexico City is just starting to recover from a political protest over the July 2 presidential election that lasted into mid-September, slashing foreign tourism. Another protest by losing presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is planned for Nov. 20

Mexican officials acknowledge that President-elect Felipe Calderon must act quickly after taking office on Dec. 1 to lure the Americans back. He must also provide more jobs in order to keep people from crossing illegally into the United States.

“The president-elect just told a meeting of businessmen that the most important thing for generating tourism in this country – and growth and development and jobs – is security,” Tourism Minister Rodolfo Elizondo said in an interview. “I would be the happiest man on Earth if Mexico could offer security in each and every place where we have tourism potential.”

At the same time, Elizondo said that all nations – the U.S. included – have violence that can affect visitors. While increasing violence tarnishes the image of Mexico abroad, the vast majority of the nation remains remarkably safe for tourists and residents alike, he said.

“This is not an issue of generalized insecurity because (the narcos) don’t even go after the local population,” Elizondo said. “But no one wants to be in the middle of a shootout, right?”

Elizondo says security concerns, including drug-related killings and political upheaval, are behind about half the 4 percent drop in foreign tourism from January to August of this year, as compared to the same period in 2005.

Foreign tourism is down by about 350,000 people so far this year, meaning about 175,000 stayed away because of insecurity, according to that calculation. Other factors hurting the industry were bad weather and the ongoing recovery of Cancun from Hurricane Wilma last year, Elizondo said.

More than 22 million foreigners visited Mexico in 2005, spending $12 billion.

John Krieger, president of the Dallas-based travel agency Cruise and Tour Center, said locals are cutting their travel to Mexico, especially on cruise ships. But he said it’s more a combination of high energy prices, concern about the housing market, and other economic issues rather than fears about safety.

“The two things that motivate American travelers are personal safety and cleanliness,” said Krieger. “I have heard no instance in which people don’t feel safe (going to Mexico).”

Mexico could be vulnerable among first-time travelers on the safety issue, he said. “It’s easier for them to say “no.’ They just tend to be more fragile.”

The current U.S. State Department’s “public announcement” on the state of security in Mexico says: “Public sources suggest that narcotics-related violence has claimed 1,500 lives in Mexico this year. In recent months there have been execution-style murders of Mexican and U.S. citizens in Tamaulipas (particularly Nuevo Laredo), Michoacan, Baja California, Guerrero, and other states.”

Some tourism officials say that the fear is exaggerated.

“These are isolated incidents, lamentable, but they are not affecting tourism,” said Elvia Zavala Jimenez, Acapulco’s tourism director. Zavala said she has asked travel agents in the United States whether they worry about security in Acapulco, and they have said no.

For example, cruise ship passengers, she said, “feel just as safe (on the streets of Acapulco) as they do on the cruise ships.”

The 15 percent drop in international tourism to the beach resort this year, she said, is due to bad weather, the loss of cruise ship traffic and other factors.

Zavala said she has negotiated deals that will bring more cruise ships carrying Americans, more flights from the East Coast, and more spring breakers in coming months.

But Aridjis, the political commentator, said Mexico needs to come to terms with its lack of security, not deny it, and he thinks Calderon is just the man to do so.

“Not only are the tourists scared, the Mexican people are scared,” he said. “What alarms us so much is that (President Vicente) Fox is no longer governing because he has so little time left.”

Fox has said he will govern until the last day of his administration and turn over a stable country to Calderon. But in Oaxaca, Aridjis said, leftist guerrillas, social agitators and irresponsible politicians have been squaring off for months, and yet Fox did not intervene until the recent killings.

“Calderon is going to be like the captain of a ship that has gone adrift and needs to be put back on course,” Aridjis said. “He has the character, determination and intelligence to do that.”

(c) 2006, The Dallas Morning News.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-11-05-06 0600EST

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