PUERTO PEÑASCO, Sonora - Rocky Point can't escape northern Mexico's reputation.

Arizona travelers have long considered Rocky Point, the closest beach town to Tucson, an island of tranquillity - apart from the United States and even Mexico, in a way.

But a variety of factors, accentuated recently by growing concerns about safety in Mexico, has convinced many Arizona tourists not to go to the town, formally named Puerto Peñasco. This has angered some residents, business owners and longtime visitors, who say tourists remain safe there.

"It is getting a bad rap," said Steve Schwab, owner of Sea Side Reservations, which manages 800 properties for rental in Sonora. "The violence just isn't here."

But Rocky Point is in Mexico's borderlands, a wide swath that has experienced waves of disturbing drug-war violence since President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006 and launched stronger attacks against drug traffickers. And since late 2007, traffickers who dominate Sonora's northern border, the Sinaloa Cartel, have established a greater presence in Rocky Point, said Anthony Coulson, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Tucson office.

"It's not that the violence or the cartels are targeting U.S. citizens or tourists," Coulson said. It's that when traffickers fight each other or with police, "the problem is the randomness of where that takes place."

So, while it's true that relatively little violence has happened in Rocky Point, the potential exists, and many Americans are exceedingly aware of that. Business has declined as a result.

2009 - a very bad year

The worst year for business in the current decline appears to have been last year, Schwab said. Reservations in Rocky Point made through his business declined 87 percent from about 60,000 the year before, he said.

The number of passenger-vehicle crossings at the Lukeville Port of Entry - a measure of tourism, since such a high proportion of people crossing there travel to Rocky Point - also was way down in 2009. Only 347,000 passenger vehicles crossed, according to figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection - a decline of 23 percent from the 451,000 that crossed in 2007.

The perception of danger is just the latest of several factors to hurt tourism, said Bruce Greenberg, a Tucson-based real estate consultant and appraiser who works in Mexico. The recession began worrying potential travelers in late 2008. Then the H1N1 flu stirred concerns about visiting Mexico in early 2009. Then came the requirement that Americans bring passports when traveling to Mexico, starting on June 1, 2009. And now there is the fear of crime.

"The economy is certainly driving it - people have less money to spend," Greenberg said.

But the fear of violence is sustaining the downturn, Rocky Point merchants said.

"All the customers say it's on the news that it's not safe," said Carlos Martinez, a vendor in the old port's fish-market section.

Data from Sonora show that the murder rate appears relatively steady, though it rose slightly in 2009. Three homicides were reported in Rocky Point in 2006, 10 in 2007, 10 in 2008 and 13 in 2009. So far in 2010, six homicides have been reported.

But perhaps the most troubling incident wasn't a killing at all. On June 19, police chief Erick Landagaray and his bodyguard were shot several times, in what officials initially described as an ambush.

Now, Rocky Point residents and merchants tell a different story, one that isn't as scary: Landagaray was shot during a traffic stop, they say. Sonoran authorities did not return calls or e-mails asking what they currently believe happened.

Justified fear or paranoia?

Many longtime visitors to Rocky Point shake their heads at what they consider Americans' paranoia about visiting the town.

Tucsonan Debra Romero said via e-mail that she has been traveling to Rocky Point for 17 years and had a "great time" there in early July.

"There was more of a show of police and Marines, but that is for our safety and fine by me, plus they just had elections the day before," she said.

But even some regular visitors are growing more reluctant. Daniel Strauss of Tucson said via e-mail that he's been visiting Rocky Point for 10 years but is having second thoughts now.

"When we visit we normally stay out on the beach on the other side of Las Conchas, regularly visiting town to shop and have lunch or dinner," he said. "If I were to return in the fall it would only be to stay out on the beach area, very reluctant to visit town. And (I) certainly would not even consider going at night."

Even the conspicuous presence of police and especially soldiers may not reassure some U.S. visitors, especially those less used to foreign travel, said Marie Zener, who spent July 4 weekend in the town and is there again this weekend.

"In my opinion, these checkpoints and military with machine guns along the roads may have backfired for the typical American tourist," she said via e-mail. "Instead of feeling safer, they may have been thinking, 'What's going on down here that they need these guys with machine guns all along the road?' "

In fact, the authorities represent another obstacle to hesitant Americans who worry about getting involved with Mexican police.

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City warns: "In some instances, Americans have become victims of harassment, mistreatment and extortion by Mexican law enforcement and other officials."

Sinking property values

The continuing fear is especially distressing for American property owners in Rocky Point. In the last decade, thousands of condominiums were built along Sandy Beach, the miles-long beach that stretches northwest of Rocky Point.

Many investors bought more than one condo during the real-estate run-up, only to see their value crash along with the U.S. housing market. As prices have gone down, work stopped on a half-dozen projects that remain incomplete.

Residents and property owners grew especially angry in May, when the U.S. Consulate in Nogales, Sonora, issued a warning that travelers should not drive Mexican Highway 8, the road between the border and Rocky Point, at night. They based their warning on unconfirmed reports that unofficial checkpoints had been set up on the road at night.

A homeowners association at the Las Palomas development, for example, sent an e-mail to members asking them to call the Nogales consulate to protest the travel warning and demand it be withdrawn.

"The careless travel warning and misinformed press are threatening your Memorial Day, your rental incomes, your ability to invite friends and family to a place we love," the e-mail said.

However, last week, the U.S. Consulate confirmed that the warning remains in effect.

For now, though, people in Rocky Point's hospitality business are enjoying the seasonal rush of Mexican tourists, especially from Chihuahua, the state east of Sonora, and one of the hotbeds of drug-war violence. Rocky Point's airport received its first charter flight from Chihuahua Friday, a Boeing 737 with 111 passengers on board.

"In Nogales, in Ciudad Juárez, yes, it is serious, but here it's calm," said fish vendor Marco Antonio Vargas while sitting on a tub at Richard's Fish Market. With a wry smile, he added, "The people from Chihuahua come here to relax and not see so many bodies."


Passenger vehicle crossings at Lukeville show how traffic has dropped:

Fiscal year Vehicles

2002 433,000

2003 423,000

2004 395,000

2005 401,000

2006 426,000

2007 451,000

2008 421,000

2009 347,000

Contact reporter Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427.