By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Mexico's tourism chief met with Texas officials in Austin on Monday to head off a potential warning against visiting Mexico during the lucrative Spring Break and summer vacation seasons, a mission complicated by last week's robbery of a tourist bus in the resort city of Puerto Vallarta.
"Mexico received 22.7 million tourists last year," Rodolfo Lopez Negrete, Chief Operating Officer of the Mexico Tourism Board, said in an interview.
"In addition to that, we received at least five million passengers who came through the different cruise companies through the different ports of call in Mexico, and these numbers exclude the hundreds of thousands of people from the U.S. who cross the border into Mexico every day."
The message of Lopez Negrete to the Texas Commission on Public Safety and other officials was clear: well-publicized drug violence which has claimed an estimated 40,000 lives in Mexico since 2006 is limited to a handful of places, mainly border cities like Juarez, and is not a threat to tourism.
"We should not be perceived as a dangerous country overall, because we're not," he said. "We have a challenge and we are combating that challenge.
"Those pockets where this violence is taking place are very well identified. These are gangs against gangs. This is totally unrelated to tourism. This is not about attacking tourists, and if you take into account the volume of tourists that Mexico receives every year, compared to the number of instances that we have had, it is a miniscule, miniscule part."
The U.S., and Texas in particular, is vital to Mexico's tourist trade, which is the nation's second largest industry. About 60 percent of tourists who fly into Mexico are Americans, and one third of those fly through Texas.
In 2009, Texas officials urged Texans to avoid Mexico, a warning which significantly damaged the tourism industry.
Lopez Negrete said this is his third trip to Texas to meet with state officials. He wants any new travel advisory, which he expects to be issued next week, to be 'proportional.'
"We recognize we cannot hold off whatever they intend to do," he said. "What is critical here is that any warning not be general but be specific, and will stress that our major resort destinations are not painted with a broad brush along with the destinations that we have in Mexico which have experienced violence."
Cancun is a top destination for U.S. spring break visitors, and Puerto Vallarta, La Paz, Cabo San Lucas in the Baja California Sur, and the cities of Guadalajara and Mexico City are popular among American tourists.
The U.S. State Department this month expanded its Mexico travel warnings to include 16 of Mexico's 31 states.
But Lopez Negrete praised the Department for making the warnings 'more specific' and stating that Quintana Roo state, where Cancun and many of the Mayan archaeological sites are located, as well as Baja California Sur, the Yucatan Peninsula, and other tourist destinations, as well as Mexico City and Guadalajara, were not considered dangerous.
Lopez Negrete conceded that last weekend's attacks in Puerto Vallarta, which is among the destinations the State Department just listed as safe, made his job in Texas much more difficult.
"That is something that has never happened before," he said, but "this should not be taken out of context.
"I'm not trying to under-represent the incident, but we believe this is an isolated incident," he said. "Measures have been taken to make sure this will not happen again. This assailant will be captured and brought to justice. But this is an incident that should never have occurred. These kinds of things don't happen regularly in Mexico and we are very concerned that this will be taken out of context.
Lopez Negrete said tourism visitors in Mexico were 5.3 percent ahead of last year's figures as measured in the seventy major tourist destinations.
He said tourists know they should not go to places like Juarez, the violent city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, which has one of the highest rates of murder and violent crime in the world as rival gangs battle over drug trafficking. The beheadings and mass violence in Juarez over the past few years have made headlines worldwide.
(Editing by Greg McCune and Peter Bohan)