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Despite Cancun Attack, Tourism Booming, Officials Say

Mexico tourism

Several airlines, including Virgin America, have recently announced additional direct flights from U.S. destinations and elsewhere to Mexico resorts like San Jose del Cabo and Cancun. Despite the ongoing drug-related violence there, Mexican officials say tourism is thriving. (AP/Virgin America)

As Mexican officials investigate a bloody attack that left eight people dead in one of the country's most popular vacation destinations, officials there say the drug wars appear to be having little effect on tourism.

Six women and two men died Tuesday in a fire at a bar frequented by locals in the resort town of Cancun. Employees at Castillo del Mar have told police that gunmen tossed gasoline bombs at the establishment, which is located in a low-income area far from the city's main tourist zone.

Quintana Roo state Attorney General Francisco Alor told a local radio station that the cause of the blaze remains under investigation and that the bar has had problems in the past, although he did not elaborate.

Businesses throughout Mexico are often hit up for protection money by drug cartels, which sometimes set fire to those that refuse to pay, the Associated Press reports. And while Cancun has largely avoided the drug-related violence that has killed more than 28,000 people in Mexico since 2006, drug cartels and immigrant traffickers are known to operate in the area.

But the violence appears not to be deterring vacationers, who are scheduling trips to Mexico even after the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning on Aug. 27, advising American citizens to delay unnecessary travel to the central Mexican states of Michoacan and Tamaulipas, as well as Sinaloa, Durango and Coahuila.

The warning also ordered children of all U.S. government employees to leave Monterrey amid a high number of kidnappings there and following an Aug. 20 shooting near the city's American Foundation School. An earlier warning that authorized the departure of relatives of U.S. government personnel from U.S. consulates in the northern Mexican border cities of Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey and Matamoros also remains in effect.

U.S. citizens are encouraged to "stay within the well-known tourist areas," according to the warning.

"Although narcotics-related crime is a particular concern along Mexico's northern border, violence has occurred throughout the country, including in areas frequented by American tourists," the warning read. "U.S. citizens traveling to Mexico should exercise caution in unfamiliar areas and be aware of their surroundings at all times … In recent years, dozens of U.S. citizens living in Mexico have been kidnapped and most of their cases remain unsolved."

But despite the danger, the number of international tourists visiting the country by plane increased 35 percent in June compared to the same month in 2009, according to Mexico Tourism Board (MTB) statistics.

MTB officials say nearly 820,000 people from destinations worldwide visited Mexico in June, up from 605,435 in June 2009. Of those visitors, the tourism board said, roughly 573,000 were from the United States, a 23 percent increase from the same period a year ago. Canadian visitors, meanwhile, skyrocketed more than 100 percent compared to the year before, up from 21,322 to more than 41,000.

But figures provided by the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism Industries paint a different picture, indicating that the number of U.S. air passengers to Mexico actually declined by 2.5 percent this year and by nearly 11 percent in 2009.

MTB officials say cruise travel is also on the rise, as the number of American cruise passengers in the first four months of 2010 increased 6 percent compared to 2009 levels. Passengers from Canada also increased 9 percent from a year ago, MTB officials said. Mexican ports welcomed 5 million cruise passengers last year, and that figure is expected to reach nearly 6 million this year.

Despite the recent suspension of service on Mexicana Airlines, MTB officials are touting increased service by AeroMexico -- the country's largest transcontinental airline -- from Miami to Monterrey and Houston to Monterrey. Other airlines have also begun offering additional direct flights to Mexico's hot spots, or will begin to do so shortly. British Airways is scheduled to begin flying direct between London and Cancun in November, and China's Hainan Airlines will begin flying direct to Mexico City. U.S. airlines, too, are offering new direct routes from San Francisco to Los Cabos and Charlotte, N.C., to Puerto Vallarta.

"We feel these numbers are evidence of the strength and quality of Mexico's destinations," Mexico's Secretary of Tourism, Gloria Guevara, said in a statement. 

Online travel agencies agreed that Mexico remains a top tourist destination despite its deadly drug war.

Genevieve Shaw Brown, a senior editor for Travelocity, said Cancun remains the country's most popular destination and ranks No. 13 among the travel site's domestic and international locations.

"Two of the reasons Mexico remains popular are value and convenience," Brown said in a statement to FoxNews.com. "There are direct flights to Mexico’s major tourist destinations from nearly every major city in the U.S. That competition among airlines helps to keep pricing down. Average international airfare from the U.S. this fall is $769 round trip as compared to airfare from the U.S. to Mexico at $443 round trip."

Marita Hudson Thomas of Orbitz.com said Mexico's resort towns are "largely unaffected" by the ongoing travel warnings. In fact, she said, Cancun was just named the company's top international destination for the Labor Day weekend.

Popularity of Mexico's Gulf Coast resorts aside, the State Department travel warning makes it clear that travel South of the Border is not without risk. And recent news reports bear out the potential danger.

At least 16 people were injured last week when a grenade exploded at a bar in the resort city of Puerto Vallarta. And other tourist hot spots like Acapulco, Ixtapa, Zihuatanejo and Cuernavaca aren't immune to the drug-related violence.

"In April 2010, three innocent bystanders were killed in a shootout between Mexican police and [drug-trafficking organization] members in broad daylight in one of [Acapulco's] main tourist areas," the warning reads. "In the same month, numerous incidents of narcotics-related violence occurred in the city of Cuernavaca, in the State of Morelos, a popular destination for American language students."