Rocky Point battles image problem - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Rocky Point battles image problem

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Posted: Friday, March 6, 2009 2:43 pm | Updated: 12:43 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

PUERTO PENASCO, MEXICO - Department travel advisories and news reports about drug violence seemed a world away as Meghan Felts sipped a Bloody Mary and joined two girlfriends sunning themselves on a restaurant patio overlooking the Sea of Cortez.

College students staying home for spring

Her husband was nervous when she and seven girlfriends decided to rent a beach house here, she said, but the only crisis to this point had been a fire on the stove.

"Nobody wanted us to come, but we haven't run into any issues at all," said Felts, a Flagstaff resident who works as a nurse.

Across the bay from where Felts and her friends strolled among mariachis, shrimp peddlers and children hawking chewing gum, University of Arizona graduate student Kristen Yaffe read a book on a beach lined with motor homes.

"My boyfriend has friends that come back and forth all the time," she said. "I don't think it's enough of a risk to stay away."

That's music to Arturo Rodriguez's ears. As president of the Chamber of Commerce in Puerto Peñasco, better known to many Arizonans as Rocky Point, he's eager to tell everyone he can that this tourist haven is safe and open for business.

With spring break at hand, it's a bad time for Rocky Point to face an image problem, especially in Arizona, where a large majority of the area's tourists come from.

"The warnings are OK for certain cities, but the warnings are not valid for Puerto Peñasco," Rodriguez said in Spanish. "Puerto Peñasco is doing what it can for people to know it is a safe, calm city."

A U.S. State Department travel advisory urges Americans to exercise caution because of violence among rival drug cartels and Mexican security services. It cites homicides, robberies, petty thefts, carjackings and public shootouts as cartels war over drug-trafficking routes on the Mexico-U.S. border.

Rene Barranco, captain of the Puerto Peñasco Police Department, is quick to note that the travel advisory highlighted Nogales, Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana, not his community.

"In Puerto Peñasco, there's no violence against tourism," he said in Spanish. "We do different operations to bring safety to all visitors."

That's evident in soldiers armed with semi-automatic weapons traversing Puerto Peñasco's dusty streets. Barranco said it's part of the cooperation among federal, state and local authorities intended to keep tourists coming.

Rodriguez, the Chamber of Commerce president, said these steps are important because tourism is second only to fishing as the top industry here.

"There were a lot of cancellations, but we hope that people close by, especially in Arizona, come here for spring break," Rodriguez said. "If tourism doesn't come, we're going to be even harder hit by the economic crisis."

Alvito Robinson, a Tempe resident who has been fishing in Rocky Point long enough to become friends with a few business owners, said it isn't fair to lump this community together with border cities experiencing drug violence.

"They depend on people coming down here and spending all the American dollars so they can survive," he said. "They've got kids to feed down here."

Roman "Jerry" Cañez, who recently opened a seafood restaurant called Jerry's, said he wants his first spring break to be a strong one.

"We are a team, all Rocky Point, and the people not coming is bad for everything," he said. "All businesses would suffer."

Jose Luis Gonzalez, a shrimp peddler, said the recession has already hit tourism hard because Americans have less disposable income to spend in Mexico. A fear-fueled decline in tourists would be devastating, he said.

"We're hoping for a decent spring break, something to get us by," he said. "We'll see by the volume of kids that we get this year whether all the stuff that the deans, I imagine, told college students is going to take effect."

In his experience, however, a bit of perceived danger rarely keeps college students from doing anything. It may even help, Gonzalez said.

"Kids are kids, and basically what administration and parents tell them, they do the opposite," he said. "We're counting on that."

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