Texas is still a destination for Northerners who travel south for the winter, but snowbirds are thinking twice about traveling to violence-plagued Mexico.
South Texas officials say there is little or no change in the number of retired northerners fleeing their snow-sacked homes to spend the winter months near the warm beaches of the state's Gulf coast. But fewer travelers are making trips to the streets of Mexico, where broad-daylight shootouts aren't unusual as drug cartels fight a bloody turf war.
Some say the concerns are overblown and border towns such as Nuevo Progreso still draw streams of seniors looking for cut-rate prescription drugs, dental work and liquor, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported Monday.
One South Texas bus charter company has quit making trips to Progreso from several Texas and Louisiana tourist destinations. Barbara Jordan, of Jordan and Jordan Charters, said she's heard and read too many stories of beheadings and shootouts.
"Bookings were way down," she said. "We used to go two or three times a week, but it's been tapering off every year. Last year we were hard-put to get up a busload."
During one of her company's last border crossings, Mexican soldiers conducting inspections boarded the bus with machine guns in hand, Jordan said. "It just scares our seniors to death," she said.
According to the U.S. State Department, most reported American slayings in Mexico happened in the western border cities of Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana. But violence is spreading east, prompting the U.S. to issue warnings against unnecessary travel to Tamaulipas, the Mexican state that borders Texas from Laredo to the Gulf of Mexico and includes Nuevo Progreso.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a researcher started asking those who winter in Texas if the threat of terrorism or violence would keep them from returning. In 2010, 21 percent of respondents said violence would be one such reason, up from 13 percent two years earlier, said Penny Simpson, director of the Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg. Only health and family reasons were cited more frequently.
Concerns about violence now outweigh issues over the safety and purity of the U.S. brand-name prescription drugs sold by Mexican pharmacies, said Dr. Brian Smith, the Harlingen-based director of the Texas Department of State Health Services region that spans South Texas. Most of the drugs are the same as those bought in U.S. pharmacies, he said.
"Virtually no locals are going into Mexico for meds right now," Smith said. "Everybody I've heard of who used to go into Mexico for health care no longer goes. Some people who used to visit their families don't go over anymore."
The violence hasn't scared Judy Hereden, an event coordinator for Big Time Travel, a Port Aransas-based charter and shuttle service that offers trips to Nuevo Progreso. She said the Mexican army and marines have established a presence in Nuevo Progreso because it is one of the few towns that haven't succumbed to the chaos.
One of her customers, Theresa Kirchner, said the visitors never felt unsafe and hardly noticed the military presence. She said the biggest threat came from food vendors trying to sell their wares after she just had a wisdom tooth pulled by a Mexican dentist for $20.
"My worst experience was people trying to shove roasted peanuts at me," she said.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.