By Karen Brooks
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Texas state government warnings to Americans about travel to Mexico are "ludicrous," "misinformed," and may damage the country's safest tourist destinations, Mexico's tourism chief told Reuters on Wednesday.
Rodolfo Lopez Negrete, chief operating officer of Mexico's Board of Tourism, visited the Texas capital of Austin to drive home that point to Texas officials. It is the second time he has met with Texas officials this year on the topic.
At issue are warnings in January and March against Texans traveling to Mexico during holidays and the heavy college student travel period of Spring Break. A statement issued by state public safety chief Steve McCraw on March 1 said resorts such as Acapulco and Cancun were havens of violence, and warned that students could be caught in the crossfire of indiscriminate drug violence.
"Our safety message is simple: avoid traveling to Mexico during Spring Break and stay alive," the Texas warning read.
The goal of the meeting on Wednesday was to convince Texas to limit such warnings only to the dangerous parts of Mexico and come up with a system for keeping state officials more up-to-date on the situation in Mexico, Lopez Negrete said.
"We recognize that there are certain destinations in Mexico, particularly at the border, that we would not recommend Americans go on vacations, or Mexicans for that matter," Lopez Negrete told Reuters. "This violence that has been in Ciudad Juarez - Cancun is almost 1,300 miles away."
"Obviously, you're not going to stop going to Dallas because there's a problem in New York," he added.
Ciudad Juarez is the most dangerous city in Mexico and sits just across the border from El Paso, Texas.
Texas public safety officials declined comment on Wednesday.
High profile violence has marred the image of Mexico's large tourist centers in recent months. In Acapulco, for example, the murder of several women in April and the killing of a former prison official in May drew international headlines. But the majority of violence tends to happen outside the tourist areas.
There is some anecdotal evidence that the violence has contributed to a decline in tourism to Mexico, including some reports from hotel managers that visitors have canceled travel plans. But travel to Mexico fell when the recession hit in 2008, and has been recovering ever since. It is difficult to separate the recession effect from the impact of the violence.
More than 37,000 people have been killed in Mexico since late 2006 when President Felipe Calderon took office and sent the armed forces to crush powerful drug cartels battling for lucrative smuggling routes to the United States.
A recent State Department advisory said that 111 Americans were reported murdered in Mexico last year, up from 35 in 2007.
In his March warning, McCraw pointed to several Texans killed in Mexico this year. They included an immigration agent from South Texas killed near San Luis Potosi in February, two El Paso teens shot to death in Juarez, and a Texas missionary killed "when she and her husband ran an illegal roadblock in northeastern Mexico."
Mexican tourism officials acknowledge that shootings, kidnappings and beheadings are the reality in some parts of Mexico, but said they are not a threat to popular resorts like the Riviera Maya and Los Cabos. The warnings should reflect that difference, Lopez Negrete said.
With an eye on the millions of Americans whose summer vacation plans could be thwarted by the warnings, Lopez Negrete and industry officials said they want Texas officials to know that popular destinations such as Puerto Vallarta and La Paz, Baja California Sur, are "perfectly safe."
The stakes are high for Mexico. Some 60 percent of tourists who fly into Mexico are Americans, and a third of them either live in or fly through Texas, Lopez Negrete said.
Some 22 million tourists visit Mexico each year, Lopez Negrete said. It's the No. 1 destination for vacationing Americans outside the U.S, he said.
Lopez Negrete said he also wants to work with the U.S. Department of State on federal government warnings that he said are too general.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Greg McCune)