For more than 20 years, Melody Williams Yeh has been going to the Yucatan Peninsula and Mexico on vacation and business, including five years as a home-based travel agent who has sent hundreds, if not thousands, of clients to the region for weddings, honeymoons and vacations.
As she approaches her first-year anniversary living in downtown Cancun, Williams Yeh says she doesn’t recognize the image of Cancun and Playa del Carmen being portrayed back home through State Department advisories and in the American consumer media.
“For me, this has been very difficult to watch, because my neighbors and friends here are the nicest, kindest, people. In Cancun and Playa del Carmen, whether you work in the tourism industry or not, your life is indirectly or directly tied to tourism. So, this false, negative media coverage hurts.”
Williams Yeh has been going to Mexico with her family since she was six or seven years old. When she launched her travel career, she was visiting Mexico “every other month, between destination wedding shows and industry events, and vacations.”
Having absorbed the local culture and lifestyle for so many years, a little more than a year ago she decided to move with her dog to Cancun. “Everyone’s thinking is so much healthier here. It’s not just about getting ahead. There is an appreciation that what you put out to the universe comes back to you, so people are more family-oriented, community-oriented,” Williams Yeh said.
“Living here, I walk everywhere. I don’t even own a car, because most of everything I need to do, from grocery shopping to going to the movies, is right around the corner,” said Williams Yeh, who grew up and spent most of her life in Charlotte, North Carolina. “So, when I see stories and State Department advisories telling people how dangerous Cancun is, it’s not what I’m experiencing living here.”
“If anyone would be bothered, it would be me, a 28-year-old woman constantly out, walking through town,” she said. “Do things happen that you hear about in the media? Of course, they do. But I have never felt fear here.”
While Williams Yeh does not portray Cancun and the surrounding area as crime-free, she offered Travel Market Report a look into her life as both a resident, and someone who works daily with the local tourism industry and Americans traveling to the region.
Living a normal life
Today, Williams Yeh operates her home-based travel agency, Love Story Travel LLC, out of an apartment in a neighborhood on the southern edge of downtown Cancun. Most mornings, she walks to the Walmart around the corner to purchase a Greek yogurt for breakfast. Because it is so inexpensive, frequently she orders lunch delivered to her apartment.
She does all of her grocery shopping locally and has so many favorite restaurants — from Thai to authentic Spanish, and “including three amazing pizza shops within a mile of my house” — that Williams Yeh hasn’t eaten at a restaurant in the hotel zone once since she moved to Mexico. One of her favorite haunts is a local restaurant with 40 different craft beers. She also brags about the plethora of wine bars in town.
“But the local law enforcement is very strict about drunk driving, and they have DWI checkpoints most weekend evenings to prevent it, which helps you feel safer,” she said.
Most of the time, her evenings are no different than when she lived in Charlotte. “I’m chilling at home with my dog, or friends, or going to the movies. We have such amazing cinemas here, with sofas, a full bar with fresh cooked sandwiches, sushi,” Williams Yeh said. “It really takes you living here to see how normal it is.”
American viewpoints of safety
This contrasts with what Williams Yeh is increasingly hearing from her client base, which is mostly based in the contiguous 48 U.S. states.
With a clientele that skews towards her age demographic, Williams Yeh often is working to convince clients with little experience traveling abroad to not believe U.S. media coverage. “Their parents are talking them out of traveling here in some cases. One client, leading up to a recent trip I booked them here, told me ‘My aunt sends me an article every single day asking if Mexico is safe.’”
“There definitely is pushback, at the very beginning of a consultation. They’ll say ‘I want to go to the Caribbean, but not Mexico,’” she said. “I’m also getting a lot more requests for destinations in the United States, Napa, Europe.” She said she isn’t always sure if destination trends are directly or indirectly related to the recent negative media coverage.
Still other travelers who do come are staying on property, she said, or choosing Mexican resort areas further away from Cancun, like Riviera Maya.
“So many Americans think that if they go off resort, they are going to find that Mexicans hate Americans, and something bad will happen to them. What they don’t understand is that the locals want to take you in,” she said.
“Clients don’t want to take the tours that we’ve sold for years. They come down for the resorts and the beaches, but they’re not going to the ruins, even in basic escorted tours,” she said.
She also still hears concerns about tainted alcohol. When Williams Yeh goes out to the hotel zone, she sees behavior that she feels leads to the negative coverage. “I sit next to tourists at the bar, and they’re doing tequila shots, and then a drink with rum, and then vodka shots. You wouldn’t think this was safe to do at home. So why do you expect to mix alcohol all day here, and that you’ll be fine?”