U.S. airlines pile into Cancun on bet violence won't end party

  • Michael Sasso, Mary Schlangenstein
  • Bloomberg
5:00 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018 Travel
Beachgoers wade on the beach in Cancun, Mexico, on April 4, 2015. (Photo: Cassi Alexandra/Bloomberg)

U.S. airlines are wagering that American tourists will keep flocking to Cancun despite rising violence in Mexico and a warning from the State Department. 

Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines and Delta Air Lines are adding flights to the resort. United Continental Holdings is using one of its biggest jets once a week to ply the Chicago-Cancun route.  

The extra flights suggest stable growth in U.S. tourism even after the State Department said turf wars between crime gangs were fueling a surge in violence in two Mexican states, including the one where Cancun is located. Mexico's top beach destination potentially could also pick up visitors from other Caribbean destinations that suffered severe hurricane damage.  

"It's quickly become our largest international market," Steven Swan, Southwest's director of international planning, said of Cancun. It's common for traffic to rebound after briefly dipping on travel warnings, he said. "People tend to have a relatively short-term memory."  

From the airlines' perspective, Cancun flights are good business because of their lower costs, high passenger counts and heavy sales of booze, said Mark Drusch, a consultant and former airline executive. American Airlines Group Inc. has more flights into Cancun than any other international destination, American spokeswoman Kristen Foster said.  

International passenger traffic to Mexico's largest resort has climbed since the U.S. State Department's Aug. 22 travel warning. It rose 6.3 percent in November from a year earlier and has increased more than 8 percent this year, according to the regional airport's operator.  

Without a doubt, some of the news coming out of Mexican beach towns this year has been grim. Innocent bystanders in Quintana Roo, where Cancun is located, and some other Mexican destinations have been caught up in shooting battles between criminal gangs, the U.S. advisory noted. Five people died in January at a nightclub in Playa del Carmen near Cancun.  

But such warnings are "not top of mind" for people just looking to relax, Drusch said. Quintana Roo receives about 10 million tourists a year and accounts for a third of Mexico's international visitors.  

With all the news about mass shootings and racial tension in the U.S. this year, Mexico's neighbor to the north seems just as dangerous, Vancouver resident Clark MacPherson said. The golf pro was trying to decide between Cancun, Nashville, Tennessee, or the Carolinas for his recent honeymoon. Because of all the "terrifying incidents" in the U.S. recently, Mexico "seemed like the safer option," he said.  

Carriers expanding flights to the region in recent months include Southwest, which in November announced two new seasonal routes to the Mexican resort town from Pittsburgh and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, and deep discounter Spirit, which is adding year-round service from Baltimore/Washington and Chicago. Delta this month added a third daily flight from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to Cancun, and added another flight from Boston.