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American college students a no-show in Acapulco

By Rafael Romo, CNN
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Violence keeps spring breakers away
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Foreign spring break visitors are noticeably absent from Acapulco
  • Drug-related violence has prompted travel warnings
  • Tourism officials are working to combat perceptions about violence
  • Officials say much of the violence occurs outside the resort town

Acapulco, Mexico (CNN) -- For the past 18 years, folk musician Raymundo Oregon has been playing his accordion in one of Mexico's favorite destinations for international tourists: the beach resort of Acapulco.

The 56-year-old knows the seasons and the tourists. He's seen the good times and the bad, and this is definitely a low point for his beloved coastal city.

"Foreign tourists don't come here anymore because of the violence. As you may know, we've recently had many incidents here in Acapulco," Oregon said after finishing a song with his four-member folk group, which includes his two young daughters and a friend.

Violent deaths logged by the Acapulco morgue topped 1,000 last year, mostly related to drug trafficking.

After Hollywood stars like John Wayne and Johnny Weissmuller made it their favorite getaway in the 1950s, Acapulco became popular with Americans, especially spring breakers in the months of March and April. But this season is different; restaurants and bars are empty, and very few foreigners can be seen on the beach.

Dealing with Acapulco's violence
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Brian Forgrave, a Canadian tourist who visits Acapulco yearly, says he's definitely noticed a change.

"This is always a busy time, loud music, drunken teenagers everywhere. Not this year. Spring breakers? Not this year -- it's quiet. Which is kind of a good thing," said the Ottawa resident who was spending a weeklong vacation with a group of friends.

Spring break hot spots like the Acapulco Copacabana Hotel are still full, but only with domestic tourists. Jose Luis Espejel, customer service manager at the hotel, says this is the slowest season he's seen in his five years at the resort and calls it "a big difference."

"Last year, we had over 2,600 kids, and this year it's going be probably maximum 50 or 60 of them," Espejel said.

After a series of gruesome murders late last year, American and British authorities issued warnings to travelers about Acapulco.

The U.S. Department of State says on its website that "drug-related violence has been increasing in Acapulco" and that "U.S. citizens ... should be vigilant in their personal safety." But at the same time, it clarifies that "this violence is not targeted at foreign residents or tourists."

Eighteen bodies were found in a shallow grave in the municipality of Tunzingo, Guerrero, about an hour by car from Acapulco. The discovery, made in November, appeared to be a massacre by a drug cartel. Shootings, executions and even beheadings have happened in the city in recent weeks.

Hotels, tourism operators and related business have joined forces for a campaign to talk up the city. All over in Acapulco, especially in tourist areas, are posted signs that say "habla bien de Aca," which means "speak well of Aca" (short for Acapulco). The signs have been posted in major thoroughfares as well as in shopping malls, restaurants, nightclubs and attractions.

But it's hard to speak well of the city when the violence is speaking so loudly. Fifteen headless bodies were found in January outside a mall not far from the tourist area. There were 1,010 violent deaths in Acapulco in 2010, up from 843 in 2009 and 724 in 2008, according to the Acapulco morgue. With more than 300 deaths this year, Acapulco is on pace to break last year's record.

But nightclub owner Brian Rullan says the "violence is not against tourism." Rullan owns Palladium, one of the hottest clubs in town.

"Any tourist can come here, and they'll never see violence," Rullan said. He insists that recent violence in Acapulco is drug-related and that it's only those involved in illegal drug trafficking who are affected by it.

In any case, the situation is deeply affecting his business and many others. He used to see hundreds of spring breakers every night in previous years; now it's only a handful. But the ones who were there on a recent night, including four young Americans from the Midwest, said that they felt completely safe and that people are missing out.

Amy Peterson, 22, says her mother visited Acapulco a couple of weeks prior to her trip and felt safe. "Everyone kept telling us how safe it was, so it was no problem coming here, and once we got here, everyone felt so safe," she said.

According to the Acapulco Office of Tourism, about 9 million tourists came to town last year, a number expected to increase by 300,000 in 2011. More than 70 percent of those tourists are domestic, 15 percent come from the United States, and the rest come from Canada and Europe.

Acapulco's Tourism Secretary Erika Luhrs says officials are lobbying national and international media so that Acapulco-based correspondents don't use Acapulco as a dateline if the story didn't actually happen in the beach resort.

"Many times, it happens in places far away from Acapulco. Correspondents say 'reporting from Acapulco' even when (the violent incident) happened hundreds of kilometers away," Luhrs said.

Mayor Manuel Añorve points to the fact that world-class events like an international diving championship and a Guinness record-breaking event were still held in Acapulco this year.

"Acapulco is standing on its feet; Acapulco is greater than its problems," he said.

Back at the beach, Raymundo Oregon's foursome is still waiting for an opportunity to perform. At a little over $4 a song, they need to perform at least half a dozen a day to break even.

Oregon says he knows tourists are not flocking to Acapulco the way they used to, and he feels it in his pocket. Playing a song has now become the exception rather than the norm.