CANCUN, Mexico -
Tinkling drinks in hand, New Yorkers Lauren Levy and Jacob Schum settle onto lounge chairs a few feet from the Caribbean's lapping waves. Levy adjusts her yellow bikini. Schum smooths his blue Bermuda shorts. They smile at each other and sigh softly.
"I've never seen turquoise water like this before. It's a beautiful thing," Schum says.
The couple had heard of Mexico's drug-war killings, casino firebombs, bribery and corruption. But like millions of other Americans craving a break this spring, these workaholics couldn't resist the low prices, flowing drinks and sunny, 80-degree escape.
"We know not to leave the resort, drink the water or eat the vegetables," says Levy. "We arranged for a shuttle from the airport. We wouldn't get in a taxi. And, yeah, we feel safe."
Plus they got a great deal, adds Levy: Just $1,500 for five days, four nights - food, drinks, airfare, transportation, everything.
While American tourism to Mexico slipped 3 percent last year, the country remains by far the biggest tourist destination for Americans, with about 20 million U.S. visitors a year, according to annual survey of bookings by the largest travel agencies. It's as if the entire populations of New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia and Phoenix all went to Mexico for vacation each year.
And for those Americans who do stay away, it appears that it's also finances, not just violence, that's to blame. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that the recession forced 4 percent fewer Americans to travel abroad in 2011 compared with 2010.
While some can't afford the trip, others do stay home out of fear.
The U.S. State Department warns of "gunbattles in broad daylight" as Mexican drug dealers fight to control the lucrative trade in marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine that reaps an estimated $25 billion in U.S. sales each year.
Mexican officials say 47,515 people were killed in narcotics-related violence in Mexico between Dec. 1, 2006, and Sept. 30, 2011. Most were involved in the drug trade, but the number of U.S. citizens killed in Mexico increased from 35 in 2007 to 120 in 2011.
Certain areas are more dangerous than others, the State Department says. Tourists are advised to stay near resorts and not travel at night in the resorts of Acapulco and Mazatlan, for example. And in February, 22 Carnival Cruise Lines passengers were robbed at gunpoint during a shore excursion near the seaside resort of Puerto Vallarta. Cancun, however, has remained relatively unscathed. And millions of Americans still come, especially during spring break, when the town becomes a weeks-long party.
Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials say the region is relatively free of violence because trafficking in the area is controlled almost exclusively by just one cartel, the Zetas, a brutal and high-tech gang founded by rogue Mexican Army special forces who deserted their units and entered the drug trade. In contrast to many other areas of Mexico, the Zetas are virtually uncontested in Cancun, Latin America security analyst Samuel Logan says.
"The area is safe because Los Zetas control the area and are too dug in for their rivals to fight them for it," he said in an email.
Logan said the cartel maintains control over the region by shaking down business owners, forcing them to pay for "protection" or risk attacks. He said the cartel likely has far more weapons and power than local law enforcement and is likely paying off politicians and police.
"Extortion is the name of the game," said security consultant Walter McKay in Mexico City.
McKay said going to bars, buying drugs or getting involved in illicit activity would put a tourist at great risk in Mexico. But he said it's a safe vacation for the multitudes of bikini-clad visitors who have a singular goal when they reach the numerous resort cities that dot the east and west coasts: to lie on the beach with a beer and a taco.
Other Americans come south to visit family or travel on business. But the draw of sunshine, low prices and close flights are - for many in need of a vacation - the key, irresistible combination. And Cancun, with miles of all-inclusive luxury resorts, is the top tourism spot in Mexico. Thousands of bellboys, concierges, clerks, cooks, security guards and housemaids in starched uniforms depend on the tourist dollars to send their children to school, put food on the table, take care of their elderly.
American tourists in many Mexican resort cities often vacation in a bit of a bubble. They are met at the airport by a driver holding a placard with their name, whisked past street markets, taco stands, schools and health clinics in an air-conditioned car. They settle into their resort for the entire stay, venturing out only for an occasional shopping trip in a secure part of town.
Strolling through an upscale La Isla shopping mall in Cancun, Irene Hanson pushed partner Debbie Streeter's wheelchair past one familiar shop after another: Cold Stone Creamery, United Colors of Benetton, Roxy. The Boston couple have traveled the world over the past two decades, and said they were looking forward to swimming with dolphins later in the afternoon.
"I have no safety concerns," Streeter said. "I grew up streetwise, and I can tell if someone is trouble, but these people make their money off tourists. They're not going to hurt us and scare others off."