Mazatlan was once a popular port of call on Mexican Riviera cruise itineraries. But in the wake of widely publicized crime events earlier this year -- including a visitor shot in the leg and another shooting in a hotel parking lot, with 31 people killed in violent deaths in January alone -- ships all but stopped coming. Calls to the port dropped from more than 200 in 2010 to 30 this year, and there are just 12 scheduled for 2012. Now, eager to reverse the trend, the beleaguered port is embarking on a public relations campaign to woo back the lines.
There's already been movement back. Princess Cruises was the first to announce a return with Sapphire Princess, which is scheduled for six sailings through April 2013 (Star Princess and Grand Princess will also be calling.)
Firmly believing the destination is safe and eager to see more ships return, the Mazatlan Port Authority recently allowed Cruise Critic complete access to the port and surrounding areas. "We have nothing to hide here," said port director Alfonso Gil, adding, "Our port is the safest of any in Mexico and safer than many in the Caribbean."
While we can't back up those claims with any certainty, and officials say violence has stayed well north of the city, here are some security measures cruise travelers can expect to find when they visit the port:
Port access is controlled by a 20-foot high security wall and supplemented by guard towers perched high above the facility. As an added security measure, passengers entering the port must pass through multiple checkpoints before reaching their ship. In addition, armed guards and drug-sniffing dogs patrol the area, and video surveillance cameras are present.
Special attention is given to disembarking passengers on shore excursions who are met on the dock. Rather than having tour company representatives hold up signs for various tours, the port authority requires that vetted and licensed operators bring tour buses up close to the ships. "This makes it easier for passengers and safer too. They just walk off the ship and on to their tour bus, then off to do their tour -- all very secure," Gill noted.
Passengers with concerns about safety can stay in the secure port area and enjoy a sampling of the food, culture and shopping that Mazatlan is famous for.
Within the secured area and near the ship is a plaza area full of vetted local vendors. At the moment, a town-center-like gazebo that usually features inviting music is silent, and fully stocked stores stand at the ready, able to open once again with little notice. "This is really a fun place when it is in operation. We have music, food, dancing, [and] this is [usually] one of the highlights of coming to Mazatlan," said Gill.
But what about safety outside of the secure port area? Uniformed police on foot and in patrol cars maintain a constant presence, as do armed members of the Mexican military. Tour operators, mostly life-long residents of Mazatlan, are licensed and insured to ensure the safety of passengers on shore excursions.
If your cruise line chooses to return to Mazatlan, it's still up to you whether to venture beyond the port area or even debark at all. Mazatlan is not unique among ports that sometimes inspire fear among cruisers; even the new maximum-security port of Falmouth, Jamaica, has come under fire by some for its less-than-squeaky-clean veneer once you're outside the facility's security gates. And the Cruise Critic message boards and Facebook page are rife with comments questioning the safety of various ports.
That said, cruise travelers venturing out in Mazatlan will discover the region's natural beauty, great beaches and internationally acclaimed attractions. An in-place tour operation stands ready for cruise ships to return with a variety of offerings, including surfing lessons, horseback riding through a Mexican rainforest, a tour of a tequila distillery and a visit to the original Senor Frogs. Excursions are priced to offer value -- like a $35-per-person day pass to an all-inclusive hotel, including transportation there and back, all-you-can-drink-and-eat plus unlimited use of the beachfront facilities including golf.
Meanwhile, cruise lines are still evaluating whether Mazatlan's charms and increased security measures make the port worth returning to. "We hope the cruise lines will see what we have done and come back so we can share our home with their passengers as we have for so many years," said Gil.
--by Chris Owen, Cruise Critic Special Contributor