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Holiday travel to Mexico up

Drug violence in the country isn't deterring tourists.

MEXICO CITY - Mexico is experiencing its bloodiest year of drug violence, but that's not stopping domestic and international vacationers alike from flocking to Cancun.

The resort city on Mexico's Caribbean coast, the Riviera Maya coastline below it, and the Pacific coast resort of Puerto Vallarta will be named top destinations this year by the Orbitz travel website, based on flights and hotel bookings, said spokeswoman Marita Hudson Thomas.

On the Pacific coast, Acapulco Mayor Jose Luis Avila Sanchez is predicting a huge turnout of Mexican travelers, with hotels expected to be nearly full for Christmas and New Year's Day.

Holiday travel to Mexico is up from a year ago, tourism officials in Mexico and the United States say, as vacationers cash in on low-cost tropical holidays.

Tourism revenue is up 7.1 percent in the first 10 months of 2010, compared with the same months of 2009, with visitors spending $9.8 billion, according to the Mexican Tourism Ministry.

Safety is a problem "only in some parts of Mexico," and it "has not affected the major tourist areas of the country," said Miguel Torruco Marques, president of the National Tourism Confederation, which represents the tourism industry.

The confederation projects that about 22.4 million foreigners will have vacationed in Mexico in 2010, up 4.7 percent from last year. Adding in domestic travelers, it expects 16.1 million tourists throughout the country for December alone.

Air travel to Mexico is up 6 percent this year over 2009, according to American Express Travel data, said travel specialist Linda D'Arcy: As she put it, it is "all about the value."

A trip for two from Denver to Cancun now costs as little as $823 per person for airfare and five nights at a hotel, according to the Orbitz site. A trip from the United States to the Caribbean could cost twice as much, said Chris Russo, president of the American Society of Travel Agents.

"We've had to do a lot of explaining that the Riviera Maya is a long way from the border. It's just taken more education," he said. "We have a big map, and we show them."

The Texas Department of Safety warned residents last week not to travel to Mexico for the holidays because of drug-cartel violence in northern border cities, as well as in popular tourist towns such as Acapulco.

The Mexican Tourism Ministry retorted by urging "anyone considering a vacation to Mexico to speak with any of the millions of Americans, Canadians, and other foreign nationals who chose to vacation at our resorts this year."

The government says most of the violence takes place among the drug cartels themselves. More than 30,000 people have died in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon began a military-led offense to quash the cartels in 2006.

The level of violence also varies wildly across the country. The homicide rate in the border state of Chihuahua last year was a horrifying 74 per 100,000. Levels in some other states such as Yucatan, Queretaro, or Baja California Sur - where the Los Cabos resorts are located - were 5 per 100,000 or less, which is low to average even by U.S. standards.

In the western state of Michoacan, Calderon's home state, suspected henchmen from the La Familia cartel battled police in shoot-outs for days this month near the state's capital, Morelia, killing three civilians, including a baby and a teenage girl.

Morelia is on the quaint-colonial-city tourist circuit, but it is not a draw on the scale of Puerto Vallarta, Huatulco, or Cancun.

Cancun's hotel occupancy rate was about 77 percent for the first days of December, compared with 51 percent during the same time last year, said Rodrigo de la Pena Segura, president of the city's hotel association. He said the hotels expected occupancy rates as high as 85 percent for Christmas and New Year's.