Mexico lures travelers back with bargains

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There's still time to slip away for a summer vacation and squeeze some value out of your travel dollar at the same time. All of Mexico's beach destinations are on sale right now. "Yes, all of them," travel agent Ezequiel Barraza assures me.

I interviewed Mr. Barraza for a summer vacation story this week. I first talked to him after the swine flu scare in Mexico. Back then he was just starting to see deals designed to lure travelers back.

With memories of swine flu fading, and summer going fast, it seems Americans are ready to return.

Martin Gonzalez, the director of Mexico's tourism board for the southern U.S. and Colorado told me this week that occupancy rates are on the rise. In some regions the rate matches or exceeds last summer's numbers. Gonzalez who is based in Houston works to promote Mexico's tourism destinations.

Tourism is a top source of income in Mexico and this year suffered a triple threat: fears about drug violence, swine flu and the economy. To counter that Mexico has launched a "Welcome Back" campaign to woo tourists.

And travel industry responded with alluring discounts. The bargains have been so good in recent weeks Barraza's travel agency has seen plenty of people pick a Mexico vacation over other options, "It was a good deal going to Mexico instead of other destinations."

I did a quick internet search and found many hotels are half price and children stay free. Others offer free upgrades and perks like spa treatments or massages. Some include a "flight credit" to offset the cost of airfare.

The drop in tourism this year has also hurt businesses in the U.S. that depend on Mexico travel. Desert Divers has two stores in the desert southwest: Tucson and El Paso. Both lead diving tours to Mexico.

"Our last trip to San Carlos we had 6 people where as the year before we had 16. So it definitely affects it." El Paso dive shop owner Greg Dietch told me.

His favorite spot is San Carlos on the Sea of Cortez. "You'll see whale sharks, sea lions everything in the Sea of Cortez so it's so close and so amazing that it's just fun to go down."

He's an avid supporter of the Fin Foundation. It's the brainchild of a friend, a fellow diver and marine biologist. The web page explains the mission: "The Fin Foundation is a consortium of marine biologists, educators, ocean enthusiasts, photographers and community volunteers working to bring marine science and ocean awareness to communities across the Southwest."

Dietch drives down to San Carlos with his wife and3 children. These days it makes sense for some travelers because gas prices are falling while air fares are on the rise. It's hard to believe just last summer gas prices hit a record.

The Mexican border state Sonora makes it easy for motorists with a "hassle free zone" which means visitors from U.S. don't have to get a special vehicle permit or visa like most of Mexico.

The other big issue scaring off tourists: drug violence is still a factor in some regions. To calm fears businesses in San Carlos (many run by Americans) set up a web site. And I've certainly heard from plenty of Americans who live in Mexico who tell me they're adopted hometowns are safe.

But for those who want to see an official breakdown of the hotspots, I suggest checking the U.S. State Department's Mexico travel alert.