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Mexico's Just the Latest Country Forced to Combat Overhyped Fears

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The southernmost member of North America has certainly had a rough 2009 so far (as have many of the rest of us), but touristically speaking it's been close to disastrous. So now the Mexican government has launched a campaign that's spending $90 million and enlisting Plácido Domingo and a bunch of other celebs, all to convince skittish gringos that they will not only survive but even kinda enjoy their south-of-the-border sojourn.

The now subsided hysteria over the H1N1 virus -- better known as the swine flu -- was just the latest freaked-out thump on the tom-toms of doom that've been reverberating across the media and other sectors in the United States in recent months. Growing alarm over problems in some areas with drug-gang-related violence led some commentators to hyperventilate that Mexico was sliding towards becoming a "failed" state. Some universities begged students not to run the horrific risk of spending spring break south of the border (fortunately there were zero casualties, as it turns out). I even caught some flak of my own when a couple of readers scandalized by a Cancun guide of mine published in the New York Post online slammed me as "blatantly irresponsible" and a "jerk" for encouraging travel to the destination (I'd submitted that write-up months earlier, by the way).

Sigh. Once again we're seeing in action the inexplicable but predictable tendency of modern-day Americans to panic and bolt at situations that most other nationalities take in stride. For a country of so-called "rugged individualists" which once tamed the Wild West and nuclear-armed totalitarians, these days an awful lot of us can sure be big, jumpy babies.

Over the years, more than a few family members and acquaintances have been horrified that I'd blithely fly off to places like Colombia, Croatia, Bosnia, Haiti, Nicaragua, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Aruba (remember Natalee Holloway?), and even Hong Kong (during yet another flu scare -- avian that time). In these places, and countless more like them, I'd often find Europeans far outnumbering the smattering of Yanks I'd come across.

Not that non-Americans are always immune to such nonsense. Years ago, several of my Euro buddies were reluctant to come visit me in New York City because of its rep as a lawless town; one even had the notion that many New Yorkers went around packing heat. As recently as 2007, my current home state has had to woo back overseas visitors after publicized incidents in which tourists lost their lives during robberies (one Brit paper's headline: "Come to Sunny Florida and Be Murdered for Absolutely Nothing").

You see where I'm going with this? OK, I'll spell it out. Every location has its risks, and it's laughably easy for the media to amplify a handful of incidents into a full-blown travel scare, as when visitors to Aruba slumped nearly 10 percent -- which doesn't sound like all that much, but economically, 10 percent can hurt plenty -- in the wake of that one obsessively-publicized tourist disappearance, tragic though it was.

So when an entire country like Mexico is made to sound akin to the Swat Valley or Baghdad outside the Green Zone, condemned because of a spate of drug-related murders and mayhem mostly limited to poor neighborhoods and other non-touristy areas, the panic this produces in some Americans would be laughable if it weren't so tragic. I say that because it deprives them of much needed, attractively-priced R&R and valuable exposure to an important world culture right next door. But it also penalizes the many Mexicans whose livelihoods depend on tourism, and so could even end up forcing a few of them into alternatives like drug-trafficking or sneaking across the border.

Look, recently I've been to Mazatlan, Cancun, the Riviera Maya, and Mexico City, and had a marvelous (and violence-free!) time in all the above. So by all means, do your homework and keep your wits about you when visiting, someplace like, say, Mexico City (in South Florida, I avoid neighborhoods like west Coconut Grove and Liberty City, and I sure wouldn't swan around Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant looking like some clueless turista). But for folks to deprive themselves of experiencing the amazing sights, sounds, and tastes one of the world's most fascinating urbs, just because of generalized fearmongering, is sad and unnecessary. We shouldn't ignore the challenges of travel in Mexico that do exist, but neither should we let ourselves get stampeded away after every scary headline. I like to think Americans are made of slightly sterner stuff than that.