Rocky Point tourism suffering, but many still make the hour drive from Arizona

Posted: Updated:

PUERTO PENASCO, Mexico -- Drug Violence has many thinking twice about a trip to Mexico and that's hurt tourism. But plenty of Americans are still visiting their favorite vacation spots. Some tourists are even venturing into regions listed in the U.S. State Department travel warning.

Proximity made Puerto Penasco a popular getaway. Known as Rocky Point to Americans, it's also been dubbed Arizona's beach since it's just an hour's drive south of the Arizona border.

 Christine Shea who lives in Tucson owns a home in the beach town and uses it whenever she can escape for the weekend.

"As soon as we walk in the house we're in a different world," said Shea of the home overlooking the sparkling waters of Sea of Cortez.

On a recent weekend her friends Thomas and Lisa Funk joined her at the beach house.

"This is the start of the really good season down here with the weather, said Lisa Frank. "It's just perfect," agreed Shea. The two women sat on the patio enjoying a sunny fall morning in the upper 70s. 

There was at time when the "perfect" weather would have attracted a crowd. "It would be packed. We'd have neighbors left and right," said Funk.  But these day days most people are afraid to visit.

When it comes to drug violence in Mexico the beach is not the border but even places like Rocky Point have felt an impact because of the impression the entire country of Mexico is dangerous.

The Mexican government has a new ad campaign to convince Americans it's safe to visit. One ad features what looks like a hidden camera in a taxi cab where American tourists talk about traveling in Mexico. Tourism is a leading source of income in Mexico and the government is spending 25 million dollars on the splashy campaign to lure visitors back.

And while much of the bloodshed is concentrated along border smuggling routes, some cartel activity is creeping closer to destinations that are popular with Americans.

 Last year the US government warned travelers to only drive to Rocky Point during daylight hours after reports of suspicious check points on the highway.  In some parts of Mexico drug traffickers control highway smuggling routes after dark.

And also last year gunmen shot the police chief of the seaside town. He survived but many who depend on tourism here worry the local economy is dying.

"It's tranquil here on, "said Rosa Garcia, a local vendor who sells necklaces and other beaded jewelry on the beach.

Her message for tourists, "Come back. We need you." It's echoed by Americans who love the place.

"Don't be afraid of Rocky Point. Please come down and support Rocky Point," said Candy Thompson, a visitor from Phoenix who came for the weekend with her husband and daughter.

They were joined by a group of friends at "Wrecked at the Reef" a restaurant and bar that caters to Americans. Outside the place an American flag waves and underneath a pirate looking flag with the saying "Time flies when you're having Rum."  

The Phoenix group visited Rocky Point for a charity golf game benefiting a local orphanage. They call themselves the "bar flies" and each wore a t-shirt with the name and pair of wings on their backs.

As they played ping pong in the bar, out on the beach Karen Ames swam with her 4 year old daughter Alex while her teen aged son, Shawn watched from the shore. Ames didn't hesitate to drive from Tucson to Rocky Point but planned to "only travel during the day.

Tourists have not been targeted by drug traffickers.  According to the State Department one U.S. Citizen died in Rocky Point this year. The cause of death: a motorcycle accident.

The State Department tracks US deaths abroad that are not from natural causes. Last year  109 U.S. citizens were murdered in Mexico. The vast majority were killed  in regions coping with drug violence not resorts.

Those who enjoy visiting Rocky Point never expected to see the vacation spot listed in the US State Department travel warning.

"That was a shocker," said Lisa Funk. And while the warning may have scared some tourists away, Funk and her husband have traveled extensively throughout Mexico.

"I'm going to be careful where I should be careful and conservative and I'm not going to let that whether it's on a list or not deter me from enjoying what Mexico has to offer," said Thomas Funk.

On this trip that included fresh seafood. The couple planned to cook clams for dinner at the beach house owned by friend Lisa Shea. Outside the entrance a sign etched in white stone reads, "Paz de Penasco."

Shea explained, "Paz means peace of course in Spanish. That‘s what we wanted here. That's what we have."