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U.S. State Department Removes Playa del Carmen Security Alert

Laura Dannen Redman
Just two weeks after the alert was put in place, it's all clear.

Updated March 19, 2018. On Friday the U.S. State Department lifted the travel alert for Playa del Carmen, just in time for spring break crowds to descend on the popular beach destination on Mexico's east coast. The updated statement credited new security put in place by Mexican officials in touristed areas for the reversal; U.S. government personnel were given the green light, effective immediately, to travel to Playa del Carmen and use the ferry service that had come under siege in late February and early March.

The original story, which we reported March 9, is below...

The U.S. State Department issued a security alert on Wednesday for Playa del Carmen, a popular spring break spot on Mexico’s eastern coast, noting that “the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City received information about a security threat in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Effective immediately, U.S. Government employees are prohibited from traveling to Playa del Carmen until further notice. The U.S. Consular Agency in Playa del Carmen will be closed until further notice.” Though U.S. officials declined to comment on the specificity of the security threat, the advisory comes after a February 21 ferry explosion in Playa del Carmen injured 26 people, and a week after undetonated explosives were found on a similar ferry, on March 1. The Mexican government says the alert is not related to the ferries.

Well… That sounds intimidating. What does it really mean for spring breakers?

A “security alert” is a short-term warning—the equivalent, in many ways, of what a travel alert would have been in the State Department’s old system. A State Department official is quoted as saying the alert’s primary purpose is to warn, “of specific safety and security concerns in a country, such as demonstrations, crime trends and weather events,” according to the Washington Post.

And while U.S. citizens aren’t explicitly forbidden to visit Playa del Carmen, if the consulate and embassy services are unavailable in a place you’re planning to be, it’s generally a good idea to head somewhere else. Why? As previously reported by Traveler’s Sebastian Modak, “the restrictions placed on U.S. government personnel all over the world inform the recommendations made for travelers, not just because of how they are a response to specific threats, but also because, in areas where there are no government personnel, there's also no one to come to travelers' aid in the case of emergencies.” In this case, the nearest embassy services would be 175 miles away, in Mérida.

Should I avoid the region altogether?

Not necessarily. Mexico’s threat level hasn’t changed—the country as a whole is at a level two advisory, meaning "exercise increased caution," but five states within the country are at level four, the highest on the scale, with the recommendation being "do not travel." The states are Colima, Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas; Quintana Roo, the state where Playa del Carmen is located, is still at a level two.

What’s Mexico saying about all this?

After the alert was issued, Mexican officials said in a statement that the resort city was safe. “We do not know why the U.S. government decided to emit this alert,” officials said, according to the Associated Press. “All tourism and economic activity in Playa del Carmen continues in a normal manner.” The Mexican Tourism Board told "CBS This Morning" that the U.S. security alert implies "safety issues without any basis in fact."

What should I do if I hear there’s a security alert in a place I plan to visit?

First, always check the State Department’s travel advisories site and @TravelGov Twitter feed. Security alerts and updates are posted with speed, often in real time (or in advance of a major public event, like a planned demonstration). There are four levels of caution—exercise normal precautions, exercise increased caution, reconsider travel, and do not travel—and the red-alert stage four gets reviewed at least every six months.

If it’s a passing occurrence, like a 15-day state of emergency in the Maldives, the State Department will likely issue an alert, but that isn’t a blanket “do not go” for the region. In this case, the Maldives’ 1,192 islands were safe—it was more a note to exercise caution if you were in the capital city of Malé during that time.