Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Continues Apparent Mexico Smear Campaign By Tom Brussow, President-Sunsational Beach Vacations
For close to a year, it appears that Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Raquel Rutledge has been waging what amounts to a smear campaign against the very popular vacation destination of Mexico. As the owner of a Milwaukee area travel agency, I have been following this with great concern.
What started out as a “consumer watchdog report” has become an ongoing series of sensationalized front page articles, all citing and heavily relying on generally the same small collection of anecdotal and unsubstantiated stories. Increasingly, the reporter appears bent on casting blame and seems to be on personal mission to create fear, misconception and convince the public that Mexico is an unsafe place for U.S travelers to vacation. But is it really?
In a recent article, the reporter predictably pointed the finger at travel agents and tour package providers claiming that we are not doing our job in informing consumers of the supposed risks of vacationing in Mexico. This line of thinking by Ms. Rutledge only further demonstrates her lack of understanding of the travel industry as she appears to have little insight on the role of travel agents and tour companies such as Apple Vacations. In the absence of that knowledge, she would have you believe that we are all negligent and/or somehow irresponsible. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As a frequent visitor to Mexico with over 50 trips and counting, I am dialed in on behalf of our clients who count on me and my team for advice and counsel as they consider their vacation plans.
That said, what exactly does Ms. Rutledge think we should we be warning our clients about as it relates to their potential trip to Mexico? Do bad things happen to travelers while they’re in Mexico? Yes, unfortunately they do. At the same time, on any given weekend, in Milwaukee, Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando, New York and pretty much every city, everywhere, bad things happen. That is just a fact. Let's be real, some could rightfully argue that in a relative comparison, it makes more sense that the Mexican media and authorities should be warning their citizens about coming here to the U.S to vacation, not vice versa!
In the last front page headline, the reporter clearly makes accusations of malpractice toward agents and tour companies who have/will fail to know the specific proven details and safety record of every resort in every destination and proactively share that information with travelers. This is setting an unattainable expectation and I believe most reasonable consumers would agree. What other product or industry currently operates with this level of expectation? The answer…none that I can think of.
I am not saying that the people whose anecdotal reports are featured in the stories don’t believe what they have experienced is real. As a father, I am extremely sympathetic to the tragic story that originally precipitated and is at the center of the articles. At the same time, while these unrelated accounts serve to support the premise of the articles, the numbers and the vacation experiences of 99.99% of U.S. travelers to Mexico clearly do not.
Consider that the number of incidents cited by the reporter are extremely small in comparison to the total number of U.S. visitors to Mexico. The articles point to a total of 170 separate reports going all the way back to 2009. Last year alone, close to 26 million U.S. travelers visited Mexico (about 7 Million to the Cancun/Riviera Maya resorts) which was the most ever and a 24% increase over 2016. I can’t even calculate how small a percentage the reported incidents represent given these facts! However, the public would never know this as none of the stories ever cited any visitor data that would quantify, and allow the reader to better understand, the relative scope of the issues raised.
If there was indeed a widespread problem related to alcohol blackouts, staff conduct or other safety related issues, the number of reported cases would have to be exponentially higher. There would surely be extensive supporting cell phone video evidence of wrongdoing, arrests, criminal convictions, civil lawsuits, significant social media backlash, etc. To the contrary, outside of a report or two of the Mexican government cracking down on some bootleg tequila operations and the seizure of some unlicensed alcohol, there is really no hard evidence offered in the articles of anything concrete…only allegations and speculation.
In the lead up to the busy spring break travel season, the articles definitely had a negative effect as, out of fear and misconception, many travelers chose an alternative destination this year. However, many others, citing their own personal experiences on past Mexico trips, opted to return to Cancun, Riviera Maya, and Puerto Vallarta in large numbers. I am pleased to report that as our clients are now returning home from their trips, there have been no issues regarding safety, alcohol quality, or any of the other related concerns as the articles have raised.
To the contrary, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. For example, Olivia P., a client from Brookfield, WI who stayed at the El Dorado Royale Resort in Riviera Maya said; “Thanks for checking in! Everything was amazing. Literally 5/5 on everything. The food was fantastic, the customer service was amazing, and we fell in love with the resort and the staff. I honestly have no complaints as everything was beyond incredible”.
I fully expect that as additional trip feedback continues to come in, we’ll hear many more reports similar to those we received from Olivia. So, why am I so confident?
It is my firm belief (supported by extensive first-hand personal experience) that the people of Mexico are without a doubt among the friendliest, most gracious, hard-working, honest, and amazing people I have had the pleasure to meet. I am also confident that there are thousands of my travel industry colleagues who work on the front lines caring for travelers who would whole heartedly agree.
Above all, when you travel to Mexico, the resort and the staff are focused on providing the best possible service and experience for their guests fully realizing that tourism is the lifeblood of their economy. They frequently and quite sincerely express their gratitude for American tourists who they feel are directly responsible for the highly valued job that allows them to provide for their kids and helps to ensure their families can enjoy a much better life than generations of Mexican people before them.
Knowing that, I seriously question the motives of the reporter and if she is giving us a real story or if this just another example of sensationalized news invented to draw the consumer’s attention. Or, more cynically, is it really more about business and simply a ploy to drive lucrative clicks for the company website or notoriety for the reporter? Well, if you look at their website, it is hard to deny that they are employing these Mexico safety stories as “click bait”.
I also have to question if the reporter or the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has taken the proper journalistic steps to truly investigate these issues. Has the reporter actually even been to Mexico and done the necessary diligence to visit the resorts, interview guests, conduct independent tests of the alcohol or personally observe the level of service being provided by the resort staff? I have never seen a reference to this happening in any of the articles so I can only assume it was never done. Without this first-hand knowledge, isn’t this entire series of reports essentially based on hearsay and hype?
So then, do we as travel agents, along with our tour company and resort suppliers, have a role in informing the public? Of course we do. It is part of our job and one of the key reasons why our clients trust and depend on us. As professional travel agents, we draw upon our training, experience and industry resources to field a variety of questions and assist consumers in planning and purchasing a safe and memorable vacation. We utilize our close contacts on the ground in Mexico, personal visits, constant traveler feedback, and many online agent forums where up-to-date information is shared on a daily basis to keep us informed.
And to that same end, so does the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the reporter. They owe it to the public to present fully vetted factual, unbiased, and complete reporting. They owe it to the reader and those they are making claims against to do their homework and to understand the full extent of information they are feeding to the public as it has significant consequences across many interests. Have they conclusively done this in their Mexico reporting in my view? Absolutely not. Does it appear that they are out to smear the destination of Mexico and spin the narrative to support some agenda and benefit personally or financially? From my perspective, it certainly seems like it.
So what then should you do with all of this information?
First and foremost, separate fact from fiction and find an experienced travel agent that you trust.
Then, when travelling to Mexico, you should take the normal precautions as you would travelling anywhere else in the world. Be aware of the people and conditions around you. Travel together with others especially late at night or in unpopulated areas.
A vital part of staying safe is keeping your wits about you, so be cautious about overindulging in alcohol, and avoid recreational drugs, which despite what you may have heard, are illegal in Mexico. Take into account the intensity of the sun, the heat, and your physical needs for the proper hydration, sleep and nutrition.
In addition, we always recommend the purchase of trip insurance.
With this and the strong safety measures being taken by the resorts, the local community and the great people of Mexico, you should expect to have a wonderful vacation as planned!