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Border crime

Rocky Point tries to improve image in wake of border violence

'We need to work on the fears that people have'

PUERTO PEÑASCO, Mexico - Reports of border violence and a State Department travel alert didn't deter Jamison Haponenko from a Mexican vacation with his family.

Stepping through tide pools and gathering seashells with his wife and two young daughters, Haponenko, who's been coming to "Rocky Point" for 15 years, has seen no violence.

“We’ve brought our daughters down here a couple of times already, and there have never been any problems,” said Haponenko, who lives in Pueblo, Colo.

Fausto Soto, the city’s director of international relations and tourism, said Rocky Point needs a lot more people like Haponenko. He and others argue forcefully that the drug violence in Mexican border towns such as Ciudad Juárez, Nogales and Tijuana doesn’t happen here.

But that hasn’t spared Rocky Point from a decline in U.S. tourists, a problem Soto said is exacerbated by a new requirement that U.S. citizens traveling to Mexico carry passports and H1N1 flu fears that have curbed travel.

With many residents and businesses here relying on tourism, Soto and other community leaders are trying to get their message out: Rocky Point is safe.

“We need to work on the fears that people have about coming down to Puerto Peñasco,” Soto said.

Director of Public Security Francisco Marcías said Rocky Point is a good place to vacation because it is the safest city in the state of Sonora, citing government statistics. He said drug cartels aren’t interested in Rocky Point because there aren’t many ways to get in and out of the city.

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Visitors heading to Rocky Point can expect to see more police and ambulances in town and on the main highway leading here from Arizona, Marcías said, and officials also are arranging for more roadside assistance for people whose cars break down.

Soto’s department has worked with the city’s Chamber of Commerce and the Visitor’s Bureau to revive a five-day Mardi Gras celebration, the Rocky Point Carnaval, bringing fireworks, live music and rides to the beachfront.

Oscar Palacio, general director of Playa Bonita hotel and president of Rocky Point’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, said events such as Carnaval help make Rocky Point more appealing to tourists. And he could use that appeal: Business at Playa Bonita hotel has been in decline through the last two years, he said.

“I know that in the future things are going to be compared to 2009 and what we did in 2010 to show progress,” Palacio said.

Palacio and other city leaders will be holding their breath until the U.S. State Department issues a new statement about travel to Mexico, as an alert issued last year is set to expire on Saturday.

However, State Department spokesman Darby Holladay said the department will probably issue another travel advisory. “I would not expect any deviation from the language of the current one,” he said.

Another hurdle is the perception at Arizona’s universities, which issued their own warnings last year about spring break travel to Mexico. Soto recently met with officials at the University of Arizona to promote Rocky Point as a safe destination.

Dean of Students Carol Thompson said UA officials would wait to see whether the State Department renews its travel advisory before deciding what to do this year, but she called the meeting a valuable opportunity to discuss what Rocky Point has done to improve safety.

“It’s important to have this relationship,” Thompson said.

Officials said Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University don’t plan to issue warnings this year but will direct students to the State Department’s Web site.

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However, it’s going to take more than just meetings with university officials to turn things around for Rocky Point, said Erik Lee, associate director at Arizona State University’s North American Center for Transborder Studies.

Lee said city leaders need to market Rocky Point directly to students, perhaps by setting booths on campus.

“They haven’t picked all the low-hanging fruit,” he said.

Meanwhile, Guillermo Parra, owner of the Dugout, a popular sports bar in Rocky Point’s tourist district, is waiting anxiously to see what this spring break brings. He said his business has dropped by more than half the past two tourist seasons, leaving him and daughter as the only employees.

“We need the people back,” Parra said.

Walking through Rocky Point’s fish market, an area rich in curio shops and restaurants, William Bakely of Prescott, said this city shouldn’t be compared to other parts of Mexico when it comes to safety.

“I feel as safe as I would be in Phoenix,” Bakely said.

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Ryan Van Velzer/Cronkite News Service

Jamison Haponenko of Pueblo, Colo., joins his wife, Rachel, and their daughters on the beach at Puerto Peñasco, Mexico. He said he visits regularly and considers the seaside community a safe place to vacation.

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