A flurry of media attention surrounding the death of a 20-year-old tourist in Mexico has the U.S. State Department issuing updated information for travelers – and travel agents debating how to respond.
The State Department updated its Country Specific Information for Mexico to provide updated safety information regarding tainted alcohol, following the death of one girl and illness of her brother staying at the Iberostar Hotel & Resorts' Paraiso del Mar.
It advised travelers to drink in moderation and to stop and seek medical attention if needed, after “allegations that consumption of tainted or substandard alcohol has resulted in illness or blacking out.”
Abbey Connor, from Pewaukee, WI, was on vacation with her mother, stepfather and brother when she was found unconscious in the pool at the five-star resort. A few days later she was flown to a hospital in Florida, where she was taken off life support.
Her brother, Austin, suffered an injury to the forehead and a severe concussion. He too, almost drowned. He has no memory of what happened, but the last thing he remembers is drinking tequila with his sister.
Since the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported the story last week, families across the country have shared similar accounts of sickness, blackouts and injuries after drinking at Iberostar, Secrets, Grand Oasis and other resorts around Cancun and Playa del Carmen in recent months. Overall, the Journal Sentinel said it heard from more than a dozen travelers and family members who believed they were either drugged or given bootleg liquor.
Iberostar issued a statement, saying “we only purchase sealed bottles that satisfy all standards required by the designated regulatory authorities."
Travel agents consider responses
For travel agents, the question came down to whether or not to address the issue with clients, and if so, exactly how.
Pauline Kessenides Laureano, a Travel Planners International agent, just sent eight men on a bachelor party to Iberostar. She told them to be aware of the goings on around them and to pace themselves since they are drinking in the sun; they got back safe and sound on Monday. Denise Georgiou Newell of Travels Jubilee in Toronto, Canada, said her tip sheet to clients headed to Mexico also notes to use safe drinking practices.
Many agents told TMR they feel it’s important to highlight the news but also to keep it in perspective. Loulu Lima of Book Here, Give Here - Travel That Gives and director of ebusiness marketing at HSMAI in Austin, TX, said, “at the end of the day, this is not a fact, rather an allegation. I send hundreds of clients all over Mexico and I myself consider Mexico like a second home. Staying vigilant no matter where you go is what should be the takeaway.”
“People come to us because we know what we are doing and we keep up on the industry,” said Jodi Knudson Leidholm, of Time Away Trips in Bismarck, ND. “As professionals, not telling our clients about warnings would be neglectful. This is a very real issue and should be addressed before clients make their reservations.”
Others, however, said they were trying hard not to feed into the hype. Stacey Robertson Ray, Groupit Travel owner and CEO, said she has “no intention of ‘warning’ my clients about isolated incidents in Mexico, just like I would not give them the murder rates in Chicago, NY, LA or Vegas. My clients are not canceling trips to Cancun and they are not freaking out because I am not freaking out.”
But independent agent Debbie Santiago had three cancellations from clients who asked her to find them a comparable resort in Punta Cana. “I feel bad all this is happening, but I can't force a client. She's a sweetheart. But I'm still going and so is the rest of the group. My group dropped from 25 to 11 total.”
Michele Cartwright of Destinations by Design Eleanor, WV, said she has clients “who are going to the Iberostar where this happened, and the mother is very worried. How have I handled it? With facts and common sense.”
She said the important things to highlight are not to accept food or drinks from anyone other than trusted individuals or employees, use a buddy system and always stay alert.
Karen Coleman-Ostrov, owner-operator at Karen Coleman-Ostrov & Associates Dream Vacations in Gilbert, AZ, said she had a honeymoon couple expressed concern and asked for her opinion. “I told them that ultimately, it was up to them to decide, but I felt the media blew the entire thing out of proportion and was sensationalizing the story.”
She said she pointed out several facts to keep in mind, like millions of people visit Mexico without incident and dehydration is often overlooked.
The Dream Vacations, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. Communications Team issue talking points for their agents, which included an important reminder for travel in a world full of negative events of many kinds: while we can never rule out unfortunate events in any area around the world, it is important to note they remain isolated and few in number.