Mazatlan is safe, just ask the dead people

Crime in Mexico has had a big impact on tourism, causing everything from a US Department of State travel warning to major cruise lines canceling calls at Mexican ports. Gadling has been covering the story all along and readers have been quick to respond both for and against travel to Mexico. To make sense of it all, we went to Mazatlan, once a bustling Mexican cruise port, to see for ourselves.

The occasion was last week’s Fiesta Amigos, an annual four-day event that invites people in the travel business to experience all Mazatlan has to offer.

“What better way for visitors to experience the vibrant spirit of our beautiful city than during this lively fiesta,” says Carlos Berdegué, vice president, Mazatlán Hotel Association and Tourism Board. “Mazatlán presents a truly unique travel destination, with a charming, historic core alongside premier resorts, international sporting events, gourmet cuisine, year-round events and much more – all at great value. We invite Fiesta Amigos guests to immerse themselves in all that Mazatlán has to offer.”

OK, sure, but is it safe?

That was the big question so we jumped right in, sampling a number of local restaurants, walking the streets both day and night and engaging in activities common to tourists.

Everyone lived to tell about it.What we found was a safe, friendly community, steeped with tradition and geared to handle massive crowds of tourists. Yes, drug trade and gang-related crime problems are still very present in Mexico but happen in the northern part of the country, far away from Mazatlan.

In a test of safety, we walked the streets of Mazatlan on November 2nd during the Day of the Dead stroll and festivities. Held in Mazatlan’s old historic district, the centuries-old tradition, also called All Souls Day, honors those who have died with a walking procession through town in a Mardi Gras sort of way, celebrating life.

During the day, a visit to Mazatlan’s cruise port revealed a modern facility prepped and ready to go when cruise lines return.

“We highly value our long-standing relationships within the cruise industry, and are dedicated to ensuring that Mazatlan remains among the top cruise destinations on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Mazatlan has hosted nearly 1.5 million cruise passengers since 2008 and is widely regarded as one of the safest destinations in Mexico.” said Julio Birrueta, spokesperson for the Mazatlan Tourism Trust last February.

Mazatlan is in it for the long-run and has taken steps to insure the safety of cruise passengers too. A 20-foot security wall supplemented by a guard tower overlooking operations insures passenger safety but a new 1300 foot pier that can accommodate up to four ships sits empty. When we visited the port, a lone cargo ship occupied the facility while workers continued an ongoing remodeling and construction project nearby.

The port boasted over 200 ship visits last year which quickly went down to about 30 this year after highly-publicized crime events chased cruise lines away. The port authority anticipates about a dozen calls next year.

But things are looking up for Mazatlan with Princess Cruises recently announcing a return in 2012 and other lines expected to follow. That’s good news to local merchants and service providers who rely heavily on tourism income and look forward to sharing a year-round calendar of events that includes international sporting tournaments, culinary fairs, eclectic cultural festivals and holiday celebrations.

The Quiksilver Surf Clásico Mazatlán is an international surf, music and fashion festival that happens in June. Mazatlán’s International Bike Week 2011 is an annual spring event when more than 15,000 Motorcycle fans gear up for five days of high-octane fun and adventure. Since Mazatlan is recognized worldwide as a first-class fishing destination, the Marina Mazatlán Fishing Tournament draws top anglers from around the world.

  Mazatlan has a lot to offer visitors coming by land, sea or air. Surely, travelers looking for trouble can find it anyplace on the planet. But in Mazatlan, they’re going to have to look pretty hard.

Photos/video: Chris Owen