A topless college student shook her hips in a Mexico beachside hotel pool to the delight of a screaming crowd as an armed guard watched from a distance, wiping sweat beads off his face.
The security was meant to reassure students from across the United States who dared to travel to Mexico for their annual orgy of spring break fun despite media reports of headless bodies and warnings to stay home.
AdvertisementSpiraling drug violence in the country -- in which more than 6,400 have died since the start of last year -- prompted the US State Department last month to issue a travel alert cautioning college students heading to Mexico, particularly to northern border areas.
An escalation of US concern over drug attacks spilling over its southern border -- top of the agenda on visits to Mexico by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week and US President Barack Obama next month -- and sporadic gruesome gangland killings in other areas, including nine soldiers beheaded near the resort of Acapulco in December, have fuelled scare stories of all-out war.
"There's news reports saying 'do not go to Mexico'," said 19-year-old Jason Lucas from the University of Maryland, lounging in the lobby of an Acapulco hotel.
"We had one kid in our university whose parents paid him the 1,600 dollars he paid for the trip so he wouldn't come. Another one of my buddies came but left his mum in tears," he said.
Sara Fox, 21, from New York University, nursed a hangover nearby.
"We booked ages ago and then started hearing about kidnappings and decapitations. I was very nervous before we came. But we couldn't get a refund," she said.
The fears appeared to have melted away as the bathing suit-clad students, cocktails and beers in hand, bustled through the lobby of the five-star beach hotel, which welcomed them with open arms despite their notoriously rowdy behavior.
The spring breakers only represent a small slice of the 22-23 million foreign tourists, mostly from the United States, who descend on Mexico each year, but the hotel manager said they were an investment for the future.
"It's important because spring breakers are young students who will soon be professionals, and they could be the future of tourism in Acapulco," said Jose Salgado Nava.
Spring break trade in Mexico's legendary beach resort, now a sprawling high-rise shadow of its former self, was down 20 percent this year, said Salgado, president of Acapulco's hotel and tourism association.
He denied the drop was due to fears linked to Mexico's drug violence, instead blaming the economic crisis and tough competition from Mexico's growing beach resorts, including the popular spots of Puerto Vallarta and Cancun. Overall, Mexico's well-developed tourism industry -- the country's third source of foreign income -- is holding out well despite the bad press and empty pockets north of the border, said Carlos Behnsen, executive director of the national council to promote tourism.
"The first two months of the year have been very successful in the main tourist destinations. In general terms I can say that we've experienced a slight increase over the same period last year," Behnsen said.
"But our concern is for the future. There is a lot of misinformation and confusion in the United States and people are hesitant to travel to Mexico."
Amid cancellations, Mexico's tourism professionals have contacted more than 2,000 travel agents in the United States and Canada to underline that no tourist has been affected by the drug violence.
"The organized crime, the incidents have happened between members of drug cartels or between members of the police and drug cartels," Behnsen said.
Even the border city of Tijuana, where 843 died last year in suspected drug attacks, last week launched a campaign to try to bring back visitors from the neighboring US city of San Diego.
And despite reports of doom, many here still predict a bright future, as studies suggest cash-strapped North Americans will take shorter holidays to closer destinations, giving neighboring Mexico a competitive advantage, along with the tumbling peso.
Some in Mexico see warnings from US universities, politicians and the media as just another barb in the age-old rivalry between the two neighbors.
"In the tough economic times we're living they don't want Americans to leave the country on vacation and spend their money in other places than the United States," said Salgado.
The US students partying on Acapulco's famous bay cited unlimited free booze and a lower drinking age limit as a key draw to spring break packages here.
The most scary stories they reported were the security presence, as soldiers and military vehicles become a common sight in Mexico.
"We got kind of freaked out when we saw police with machine guns standing in the hotel," Fox said. "But we feel safe. We stick with groups."
"I don't want to go back home. I had one of the best weeks of my life," he said. "I feel bad for those who dropped out."
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