A recent gunbattle in Tucson’s favorite Mexican beach town doesn’t seem to be deterring students from planning a spring break across the border.
Héctor Vázquez del Mercado, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, said about 25,000 visitors hit the sandy beaches there last week and up to 5,000 more were expected this weekend.
Puerto Peñasco, also known as Rocky Point, is about 215 miles from Tucson, roughly a four-hour drive. With a legal drinking age of 18, it is a popular spring break destination for Arizona college students.
Vazquez del Mercado said the bureau expects a 75 to 80 percent hotel occupancy rate this weekend, about 10 percent more than last spring break.
“Last year there were millions of visitors from the states, and all the people who came had a nice trip and safe trip,” he said. “I think that’s why we’ve been increasing our occupancy rates.”
The higher expectations are based on data collected over Presidents Day weekend, when the number of visitors almost doubled from last year.
Kate Tyner, an animal sciences junior at the University of Arizona, is heading to Mexico today with six fellow students. Tyner, a study-abroad student from Ireland, went to Rocky Point last September and decided to go for spring break because of the relatively low cost.
“As long as you’re careful and not going off with anybody you don’t know, then I think it’s just as safe as anywhere else,” Tyner said. “Anytime going away from home, there’s going to be risks and dangers associated, but as long as you’re aware of your surroundings, you’re fine.”
A U.S. State Department travel warning updated in January cautioned travelers about parts of Sonora, the northern Mexican state where Puerto Peñasco is located. The warning calls Sonora a “key region in the international drug and human trafficking trades.”
It mentions the gunbattle in Puerto Peñasco last December — complete with gunfire from military helicopters — and says those visiting the area should remain vigilant.
At least five people were killed during the firefight, Mexican police reported, including Gonzalo Inzunza Inzunza, a top boss in the Sinaloa drug cartel.
The incident generated international headlines, but seemed to pass quickly from many travelers’ minds.
“The perception of safety in Rocky Point was not affected by that unique incident,” Vazquez del Mercado said.
The UA did not issue a travel advisory to its students for the break. It last did that four years ago, when there was a significant outbreak of violence in certain areas of Mexico, said Kendal Washington White, assistant vice president of student affairs and dean of students.
The U.S. Consulate in Nogales advises students to register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program so they can be notified if there are security incidents in the area. Visiting students should also limit alcohol intake, pay attention to their surroundings and check in with their parents, said Chad Cummins, consul general at the U.S. Consulate General in Nogales, Sonora.
But “We do not recommend that people stay away or do not travel there,” said Megan Phaneuf, consular chief for the consulate.
Although the U.S. Consulate in Nogales doesn’t track the number of visitors to Puerto Peñasco, Cummins said it seems people have been going back in larger numbers.
“You can’t live in the dark forever,” said Taylor Fields, a UA speech language and hearing sciences sophomore, who plans to spend spring break in Rocky Point. “I decided that as long as I was going to be safe and conscious of the fact that it’s not the safest place in the world that it would be OK.”