American warns of Mexico resort dangers

Maureen Webster, whose son drowned in Cancun, is speaking out against potential problems at Mexican resorts, especially in light of the November hotel explosion that killed seven people.
People stand near a destroyed area at the Grand Riviera Princess hotel in Playa del Carmen, after an explosion ripped through the resort on Nov. 14, killing five Canadians and two Mexicans. American traveller Maureen Webster is warning against travelling to Mexican resorts. (Reuters)

Maureen Webster felt a sense of familiarity as she watched the Mexico explosion story unfold last November, noting officials were quick to blame swamp gas while lingering questions remained.

The Bostonian was again left shaking her head when she heard a CBC News investigation revealed emergency calls showing that the Grand Riviera Princess hotel security barred ambulances from entering the resort following the blast on Nov. 14, killing five Canadians and two Mexicans.

The hotel has denied keeping emergency workers out.

Maureen Webster has devoted herself to raising awareness about Mexico. (CBC)

"That is terrible, but not surprising considering what I know now," Webster said. "But I am sure it is very surprising to people that are new to this type of info because you just don't believe that there's somewhere that would actually be like that."

Webster's son Nolan, 22, drowned on Jan. 7, 2007, a day after arriving at a Cancun resort for a one-week vacation. Webster says a number of witnesses at the packed poolside say the hotel doctor brushed away a Canadian trauma nurse trying to help Nolan and let him die.

False sense of security

Ever since, Webster has devoted herself to raising awareness about Mexico, particularly resorts, where she says tourists often feel a false sense of security. She runs a website where she collects similar stories from others in hopes of educating the public.

"There's no shortage of horror stories coming out of Mexico," Webster said. 

"Staying in these resorts that have this whole outward appearance of being safe does not ensure your safety," said Webster, adding that Mexican resorts often don't have emergency or safety plans. 

Webster is also on a crusade to create an international travellers bill of rights. If the bill, introduced in U.S. Congress in 2009, becomes law, it would require operators of international travel websites to provide consumers with information about health and safety risks.

But one tourism professor says it should be up to travellers to do their own homework and be aware of the rules and standards in countries they visit.

"I think it's a little naïve to believe that we can force other jurisdictions —other countries — to follow the same set of standards that we have in our home country," said Gabor Forgacs, assistant professor at the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. "They have their own laws in their own land. We may like it or not, but if we are in their country, we have to appreciate the differences there."

Use credible source

Forgacs recommends tourists research the planned destination using credible sources: read the Canadian government's travel advisories, speak to tourism agencies specializing in Mexico trips for inside knowledge and pay attention to the news.

Melissa Hart of Ottawa says she will be travelling to Cuba, not Mexico, with her family. (CBC)

"I wouldn't tell anybody not to go to Mexico. I believe Mexico is a great value for money. They have fantastic destinations, rich sites and attractions. The country has a lot to offer. And Canadians go down there in impressive numbers," Forgacs said.

But the latest news coming from Mexico — an Ontario woman alleging officers gang raped her, a B.C. man shot in the leg, the deadly resort explosion — is enough to deter some from vacationing in the popular travel destination.

"It's just not somewhere I particularly want to be taking my kids when there are other destinations we can go," said Melissa Hart of Ottawa.

Safe haven

Instead, Hart, her husband, and their two young children will spend their last-minute sun-seeking vacation in Cuba.

Webster stresses she would never tell people to not travel to Mexico, but sees her website as a way to ensure travellers don't assume a resort will provide a safe haven and to push for standards to be raised.

"It does look great, but if you run into trouble inside those walls, there is nothing that anyone at that resort is going to do to help you. You're pretty much on your own," she said.

"I just think if Mexico wants to market themselves as a beautiful tourist destination then they have to step up to the plate and … they have to make sure the tourist, who is their commodity, is safe inside the resort."

More than a million Canadians travel to Mexico every year. The Canadian government's travel advisory urges Canadians to exercise a high degree of caution, particularly in the Mexico-U.S. border region.