CANCUN – The calm wind off the Caribbean blows delicately across the white sand as a young couple from Virginia hold hands in the sun's tropical warmth. Children splash in a hotel pool nearby.
The images on this pristine September day in Cancún are exactly the kind of idyllic images that its tourism industry wants to present when you think of vacationing in Mexico. But, increasingly, tranquil scenes are not the first that come to mind when most Americans think of their neighbor to the South.
The explosion of screaming headlines and images about the drug war in Mexico that has led to nearly 45,000 deaths the past five years have inundated Americans, and other potential tourists, with nonstop images of the country’s drug violence.
As a result, another victim of the country’s drug war has been its tourism industry—which is vital to Mexico’s economy and generates nearly $12 billion a year for this country of 122 million, almost half of which is generated by Cancún and other resort areas in the southern state of Yucatán.
Despite a big push by the Mexican tourism board - this has been officially called the "Year of Tourism" by Mexican officials - there has only been a 1.8 percent increase in tourism the first eight months of this year. And worrisome signs abound.
"Americans, Canadians or Europeans who are thinking about tourist spots might well decide to go to Florida or to California or to other places where they wouldn't confront this kind of issue at all, " says Dr. Bruce Bagley, a well-known Latin American expert from the University of Miami. "The violence has significantly and quite negatively affected tourism which is one of the principled sources of income besides petroleum for Mexico."
A recent story in the Wall Street Journal said tourists are thinking twice about traveling to Mexico. American Express's tour operator Travel Impressions told the Journal it had witnessed a 15 percent decline among foreign travelers visiting the country.
Thousands of Miles Away, But Feeling the Impact
Cancun tourism officials and resort owners worry they are fighting against being unfairly stigmatized by a drug war that is happening more than a thousand miles away.
This past Labor Day weekend, for example, a big travel holiday for many Americans, hotels in Cancun were only about 60 to 70 percent full, according to local tourism officials.
Christopher Calabrese, a Vice President for Marriott that manages two of the company's properties in Cancun, including the JW Marriott Resort, says that most Americans do not realize how far Cancun is from places like Ciudad Juarez, where the majority of the violence is occurring. It’s the same distance, he said, as Dallas, Texas, to Boston, Mass.
"We are 1,100 miles from the border. There's no secret that there are some issues going on with these drug cartels but it is all basically at the border and does not affect Cancun , " Calabrese said in an interview. “We have not had one incident since this whole thing got started."
There have been sporadic incidents of violence near Cancun, but not in the tourist section of the resort area, where the majority of the hotels and restaurants are located. An attack earlier this month made headlines when a former Mexican mayor was ambushed on the outskirts of the well-to-do Playa del Carmen in the Riviera Maya. One person died in the skirmish.
Calabrese says there has been one positive that has come out of the dip in the tourism industry – now there are bigger bargains for travelers.
"It is a great place to come and visit. Rates are very approachable because demand is a little bit down, which makes it an even a better place to visit and the service remains second to none, " Calabrese says, noting his hotel's Five Diamond Hotel award from AAA.
Tourists say they are not letting the headlines in Mexico keep them away.
"We pay attention to the news and we know that the violence is far away from here,” says Scott Kirchhoff, an American celebrating his second wedding anniversary in Mexico. “It is not happening in Cancun."
Kirchhoff said his father tried to dissuade the couple from traveling to Mexico.
"He was nervous for us because he listens to the news. Quite a lot," he said. "He said ‘Just don't go. Why don’t you stay in the United States?’''
But the affordable prices were hard to argue against.
"We found a great price, for a great resort, and we wanted to come get away. We weren't concerned, "Erin, Scott's wife said. "We don't see any reason for concern."
Beauty Not Only on the Beaches
It is hot in Tulum, the famous Mayan ruins south of Cancun. The temperature is nearly 100 degrees, but the heat has not deterred the swarm of tourists from visiting the magical display of this ancient civilization.
The site runs along a cliff, facing east toward the Caribbean Sea and above one of Mexico's most pristine beaches. In the water, young Mayan children and tourists alike dive and swim in to the vibrant blue waves.
Outside the ancient city, a Mayan Indian plays a flute, while local Mexican dancers dress in authentic Mayan wear.
The Smiths, a middle age couple from England who are avid travelers, say they wanted to visit that part of Mexico because of its beauty and rich history.
"We didn't really know about the violence. We hadn't read that side of it. It is a shame for the local people and the Mayans,” Linda Smith said just outside of Tulum. "The people are fantastic. They are just so nice. The country is nice and once you come out of the resort area it also nice, as well."
"Honestly, it’s a lovely country. People are lovely and at the end of the day what you want is quality service, and this is what we are getting," Fitzroy Smith says.
He then sipped a cold Corona as a Luis Enrique song played in the background.
Serafin Gómez is the Miami Bureau Producer for FOX News Channel.