Reality Check: How dangerous is Mexico for Canadian tourists?

High-profile attacks on Canadians in Mexico have put the popular tourist destination in the hot seat, but it may not be as unsafe a place for travellers as you think.
Tourists relax on the beach in Cancun last month. Mexico is a safer destination for Canadian tourists than China and Jamaica, with lower rates of assaults and murders, data compiled from the Department of Foreign Affairs over a decade shows. (John Rieti/CBC)

High-profile attacks on Canadians in Mexico have put the popular tourist destination in the hot seat.

But it may not be as dangerous a place for travellers as you think.

On average, three Canadians for every 100,000 visiting Mexico are killed or assaulted per year, according to more than a decade's worth of data from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

However, when looking at Canadians most popular travel destinations, China topped the list for the rate of assaults and murders involving Canadian visitors. About seven Canadians out of every 100,000 travelling to the country came under attack, though most were assaults.

Jamaica was second to China, with about five out of every 100,000 Canadian travellers assaulted or killed on average per year. 

The rates are based on the number of assault and murder cases reported to the Department of Foreign Affairs from 2000 to 2010, compared with visitor figures for overnight trips from Statistics Canada.

Country comparisons complicated

It's difficult to determine the true security of Canadians when travelling abroad because of limited available data.

A variety of factors can change from destination to destination, including the average length of stay, the number of dual citizens and the type of travel, such as resort versus off-the-beaten path type trips.

Still, figures suggest that Mexico is not necessarily the most dangerous travel destination for Canadians.


Violence per 100,000 overnight Canadian visitors

CountryViolence rate*Assault rateMurder rate
Hong Kong0.4370.4370
Mainland China7.7597.380.379
Dominican Republic1.6791.3390.340
United Kingdom0.3380.2830.055
United States0.0880.0400.048

Source: Department of Foreign Affairs, Statistics Canada. Rate is an average over 11 years. *Combined rate of assaults and murders.

In the category of murder rates alone, Mexico fell even farther down the list. Jamaica had 1.73 killings annually for every 100,000 Canadians visiting the country. Mexico's rate was 0.268 killings for every 100,000 Canadians visiting a year, on average, between 2000 and 2010.

All other favoured tourist destinations had less than one Canadian killed for every 100,000 who visited the country, including mainland China (0.379), Dominican Republic (0.34) and Australia (0.269).

Gordon Houlden, the director of the Edmonton-based China Institute, said China's ranking surprised him, but the higher figures in China may stem from the type of tourism it offers.

Visitors to Jamaica and Mexico typically head to enclosed resorts and spend their time on the beach, while visitors to China tend to explore the country independently, he said.

"People who go to China are circulating in the broader society," Houlden said. "They are on their own to a greater extent — much more than if you look at the numbers of Mexico or Jamaica."

Also, violent incidents don’t necessarily get reported in the Chinese media unless the incident is high profile.

Houlden, who lived in China for 20 years, said he considers the country to be quite safe for tourists.

Visitors to China tend to stay in the country longer than tourists to Jamaica or Mexico, where short-term resort holidays are common. And the longer a person stays in a given country, the greater the chance of trouble.

But it is Mexico that has recently come under the most scrutiny. The high-profile attacks on Canadians in Mexico, such as the vicious beating of Alberta woman Sheila Nabb in January, have heightened concerns over the security of travellers to the popular destination.

Gar Pardy, a former head of Canadian consular services and a former ambassador to Central America, said incidents in Mexico, in particular, grab the attention of the public despite the fact the risk of violence back home can be equal or greater.

"The stories get played up a lot more in terms of it happening in exotic locations, as opposed to it happening in Timmins," Pardy said.

1.6 million Canadian tourists visited Mexico in 2011

Tourism to Mexican resorts and hotels continues to grow, said Milko Rivera Hope, counsellor for economic and business affairs for the Mexican Embassy in Canada.

Canadian visitors to Mexico hit an estimated 1.6 million last year, up eight per cent from the year before, he said. It is the second most popular destination for Canadian travellers, just behind the United States.

"Mexico is very, very aware and very concerned about the safety and security of every single visitor to Mexico," Hope said. "And that is the reason that we do not have 1.6 million bad stories about travellers to Mexico.

"You have many good stories. There have been incidents and they have been unfortunate, but there have been very few incidents."

Still, violence related to powerful drug cartels operating in Mexico has reached record proportions. In 2010 alone, the bloodiest year to date, more than 15,000 people were killed in drug-related violence.

But Hope says this violence is limited to non-tourist destinations and hasn’t affected Canadian tourists.

"Not one single incident involving Canadians have had to do with drug cartels, drug violence," he said.

However, in January 2011, a Penticton, B.C., man was shot in the leg while on vacation in Mazatlan by a group of masked men believed to be targeting a Mexican allegedly involved in the drug trade. 

Xu Yan, the director of the China National Tourist office in Toronto, said China, too, is a safe destination for tourists and growing in popularity, with roughly 57 million overnight visitors in 2011 alone, he said.

"China has already become the No. 3 destination in the world," Yan said. "If China was an unsafe destination, how can so many go to China so frequently?"

Travel warnings for China, Mexico, but not Jamaica

John Lynch, the director of tourism for the Jamaica Tourist Board, told CBC News his country had "one of the lowest rates of crime against visitors" and safety was not an issue for tourists.

"I've never heard about that before," he said. "There would have been a warning on [the Foreign Affairs] site, which there isn't … If it was an issue, we wouldn't have the increased amount of tourism that we're having out of Canada."

Foreign Affairs has listed warnings for parts of both China and Mexico on its website, but no official warning is in place for Jamaica.

Another potential factor in the rate of violence is that it encompasses leisure travellers as well as visits by dual citizens, who may not stick to typical tourist paths, Pardy said.

More than 226,000 people in Canada have Chinese citizenship, while Mexican and Jamaican citizens number around 33,000 and nearly 35,000, respectively, according to Canada’s 2006 census.

Pardy noted that though many dual citizens return to visit family and friends, meaning they would have less opportunity to get into trouble, they would also stay in the country longer.

The risk of violent crime for Canadian tourists must be put in perspective, said Bruce McIndoe, president of iJet International Inc., a consultancy firm that advises companies on employee risks in international markets.

The likelihood of violence against travellers is often far lower than the risk posed by traffic accidents and illness, he said.

"Those are the major issues that travellers need to face," McIndoe said. "When you look at these statistics, the number of people that get ill going to China are significantly higher."

With files from the CBC's Jennifer Walter