Cartel crimes hurting Valley's reputation as tourist destination by Erin Kelly - Apr. 26, 2009 12:00 AM Republic Washington Bureau WASHINGTON - Outside Arizona, the Valley of the Sun is losing its shine. Phoenix's bright image as a Mecca for golfers, conventioneers and snowbirds is being clouded over by dark tales of brutal Mexican drug cartels snatching rival smugglers from Valley homes and holding them for ransom. The result is anxious travelers faced with frightening headlines and worried politicians and tourism officials trying to cope with what they call exaggerated tales of violence. "I'm concerned about the city's image," Mayor Phil Gordon said. "When I travel to places like Washington or Chicago, people ask me what's going on here. Some people have the impression that we're some sort of cowboy city instead of the fifth-largest city in America." Almost every congressional hearing that mentions Phoenix invokes the city's unwelcome new moniker as "the kidnapping capital of America," a title re- peated in newspaper headlines from Los Angeles to London. Although the 725 kidnappings-for-ransom reported in Phoenix during the past two years have been mostly bad guys abducting other bad guys from drophouses full of smuggled immigrants and drugs, congressional leaders are publicly warning that that could change. "Innocent victims are at risk of being caught in the crossfire," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., during a recent meeting of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. He is chairman of the committee, whose Monday hearing in Phoenix on border violence helped shine a national spotlight on the problem. That spotlight is intense: National and international news outlets talk dramatically about the brutal Mexico drug wars that are spilling over the border and into cities across America, Phoenix included. Adding to the public's perceptions: Federal inquiries into the controversial immigration-enforcement tactics of Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff who in recent months also has appeared on reality TV and a comedy show. "Phoenix frights, Wild West drug war threat to Brits," said a March 1 headline from London's Daily Star Sunday. "Mexican gangs are caught in bloody clashes in Arizona, which draws 120,000 British holidaymakers every year to its Wild West landmarks," the paper reported. "Kidnap capital; deadly distinction," was the title of a Feb. 11 segment on ABC News' "Nightline." The show featured a recording of a kidnap victim pleading with his wife to send ransom money before his abductors cut off his hand. "Lawmakers want look at sheriff in Arizona," said a Feb. 14 headline in the influential New York Times. Potential visitors are noticing. "There are certain places in Phoenix I would never go right now due to people being kidnapped and being held for ransom," said an April 21 post to a CBS Sports' online message board of baseball fans discussing the Arizona Diamondbacks. "Phoenix is getting a bad rap on the East Coast," a later post responded. Phoenix tourism officials view many of the news stories as exaggerated hype. They say the bad publicity hasn't affected the city the way negative news about drug-cartel violence in Mexico has affected that country. Tourism in Mexican border towns such as Tijuana has plunged as much as 90 percent. In the Valley, two or three tourists a month have been calling the Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau asking about drug violence and kidnappings, said Douglas MacKenzie, the bureau's communications director. "I've given them information from the Phoenix police chief about how they're tackling the problem, and I reassure them that the resorts and hotels are far removed from this type of activity," he said. "The worst thing that can happen to a visitor here is that their suntan lotion will be stolen from the resort pool." Phoenix's tourism industry already has been hit hard by the recession, and bad publicity about border violence isn't going to help. The hotel occupancy rate in Phoenix dropped nearly 20 percent from February 2008 to February 2009. That's twice the national decline, according to Smith Travel Research, which attributed the plunge to the fact that the luxury segment of the travel industry has been devastated by the bad economy. "You used to have companies that would take 400 of their best clients to a Phoenix resort and spend millions of dollars," said Jeff Higley, vice president of communications for Smith Travel. "Now, some of those same companies, bankers and big Wall Street firms, are getting federal (bailout) money, and they can't do that any more." If the bad press over kidnappings is playing any role, "I suspect it's a small one," Higley said. Arizona Congressman Harry Mitchell, D-Tempe, agrees. "It's like when you hear about tornadoes in the Midwest or mudslides in California," he said. "Most people understand that these things are confined to certain areas, and they aren't going to avoid an entire state or city because of it." Phoenix police are quick to point out that violent crime - murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault - has gone down in recent years, dropping from 11,240 reported incidents in 2006 to 10,864 in 2008. Still, 34-year-old Washington, D.C., resident Mike Andrews said he would think twice about vacationing in Phoenix because of the reports of kidnapping and border violence. "I guess I could go wearing a T-shirt that says, 'Tourist: Don't shoot,' " he said. 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