Yet this is the third-straight season of bad business for Puerto Peñasco (its Spanish name). The Great Recession and, now, the limping U.S. and world econonomics have taken their tolls. But the main factor in the ghost-town effect is fear.

Tourism officials report that bookings for spring break keep falling, from 54 percent of condos and hotel rooms rented in 2008 to 35 percent last year. Resort reservations for the middle weeks of March — in the mid-2000s, resorts might have been fully booked months in advance — were running about 30 percent to 40 percent in late February, despite heavy discounts.

Border crossings at the Lukeville port of entry (measured northbound by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency) fell again last year, from 347,000 vehicles in 2009 to 313,000 vehicles in 2010. Three years earlier, 451,000 vehicles crossed.

Lazaro Hernandez replaced the former
Rocky Point police chief, who was
wounded in a shooting last June.
Ray Stern
Lazaro Hernandez replaced the former Rocky Point police chief, who was wounded in a shooting last June.
Heading out of Rocky Point on the 65-mile drive to the Arizona border, a sign tells motorists to "Have a Nice Trip."
Jamie Peachey
Heading out of Rocky Point on the 65-mile drive to the Arizona border, a sign tells motorists to "Have a Nice Trip."

Mexi-phobia rules up north in the States, where reports of mass murder, mutilated corpses, and a drug war in Mexico have made former Peñasco fans reconsider their trips.

"The so-called drug war is . . . not here," says Johnny "Vegas" Hostak, co-owner of Al Capone's Pizza and Beer in Rocky Point. "When I hear well-educated, affluent people agreeing with the media, it's really scary. Some of these people have turned their backs on Mexico."

Mexican fly-in destinations saw a slight increase in tourism in 2010, following two down years, but Rocky Point, a jewel-in-the-rough on the north shore of the Sea of Cortez, continues to experience a massive decline in visitors. The town's boosters and some visitors who make the trip seem baffled, even annoyed, by the lack of interest these days.

"People are afraid," scoffs George Camacho, a Tucson chiropractor strolling in the Malecon with family members. "It's Governor Brewer talking about headless bodies."

Promoters and businesspeople often talk about the "perfect storm" of negative factors driving down tourism. First, the recession in 2008. Then the swine flu in April 2009, a disease that appeared to stem from Mexico and reportedly killed young and old alike. The flu turned out to be no big deal, but not before the fear of it devastated Mexico's resort towns, including Rocky Point.

In June 2009, the U.S. government began requiring passports for all citizens returning from Mexico. With only about a quarter of Arizonans holding passports, the rule had an immediate, drastic effect on Rocky Point tourism. (Border agents say their policy is to never refuse entry to a U.S. citizen, however, passport or not.)

As these developments caused Americans to think twice about traveling to Mexico, the news media depicted the country's violence as the stuff of a never-ending series of Saw sequels. Sometimes Mexico appears worse off than the war zones of Iraq or Afghanistan, with reports of mass graves, decapitations, dismemberments, and a government powerless to stop the perpetrators.

These days, it's impossible not to think about the unrestrained violence in Mexico, at least a little, when you're south of the border. Visitors to Rocky Point also spoke of peer pressure they received from friends and family at home when planning their trips.

"Everybody thinks we're nuts," says Steve Phillips of Eugene, Oregon, an RV owner camping at the Playa Bonita RV park on Sandy Beach. "We thought real seriously about not going here. But, no problema, as they say."

Indeed, millions of Americans have visited Rocky Point in the past few years (including repeat visitors) without incident.

Judging by news reports and other sources, 1991 was the last year that an American was murdered in Rocky Point — and that was a bizarre, well-publicized case involving the victim's husband and his transsexual lover.

In hindsight, it was more dangerous last year for Arizona State University students to walk around Tempe at night: Two were killed in separate robberies.

Even for Mexicans, Rocky Point isn't a major danger zone. It's certainly much safer than Nogales, which last year suffered a murder rate twice that of America's most dangerous city.

Yet it's unclear precisely why Rocky Point hasn't experienced as much cartel violence or banditry as other Mexico locales. And that's the sort of question that can keep make even an adventurous visitor antsy.


Fear is personal and often irrational, and it can be difficult to convince someone who harbors a lot of it that they will be as safe as in their hometown. But people who avoid Mexico are missing out on something. Not just the beaches and drunken escapades (though there's something to be said for those, too), but a real cultural experience.

While you're sitting on the couch, watching the alien beauty of a place like Malaysia or Malawi on HDTV, just 200 miles from Phoenix is a world that combines the seaside beauty of San Diego with the cultural wonders of Latin America. You get to practice another language (one that might come in handy in Arizona), meet different people, sample local dishes, and come to know better the world you live in.

In reporting this article, no heed was paid to several admonitions in last year's State Department warning about traveling in Mexico: For a few days in December, and again in February, we drove nearly everywhere in Rocky Point both day and night, sometimes alone, and sometimes on infrequently used roads.

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1 comments
Nikkidog
Nikkidog

Just heard when crossing the boarder into mexico, the mexicans are taking turkey, steaks, hamburger meat and dog food from the Americans.  Not a very good thing to be doing when it's Thanksgiving and a lot of people will be going down there.

 
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