Richard Henkel, a retired teacher from Los Angeles, speaks wistfully about his travels through small villages in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.
He had the chance to return this summer, to watch his son's friends on the Greek national volleyball team play in the Athens Olympics. But the well-traveled educator declined because of fears of terrorism.
"Now we're looking for the safe place, the place where we're not going to get hurt," Henkel, 68, said during a visit to this Baja California resort town known for its golf courses and marlin fishing. "I think we're going to get to know Mexico better."
Henkel's new travel criteria help explain the renewed optimism of government officials, hotel investors and tourism operators in Mexico. The country has begun to enjoy a tourism windfall despite the safety consciousness that has cooled international travel since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
After two off years, Mexico jumped to 10th in the world in tourism income in 2003, with $9.5 billion in receipts. That was up from 13th the year before and represented a welcome infusion of cash as Mexico's economy struggles with a recession.
With U.S. travelers concerned about terrorism, anti-Americanism stemming from the Iraq war and risks from such things as severe acute respiratory syndrome, many are choosing destinations closer to home that are perceived to be safer.
They are planning shorter trips, scheduling them closer to departure dates and taking the family along, travel analysts say. Some tour operators in Mexico say they would not be surprised if the train bombings in Madrid on March 11 lead to an even stronger shift in travel patterns.
Mexican officials say they foresaw the new trends and have tried to take advantage of them by encouraging renewed investment in stalled resort projects, upgrading their highway system for American motorists and proposing tax breaks for international convention planners.
"We decided to bet on tourism, and we were not wrong," said Emilio Goicoechea, head of operations for Mexico's Tourism Ministry.
"After September 11 . . . we saw what others didn't see, that North Americans and Canadians like to vacation and that they would probably stop flying to Europe, that long trips would be seen as risky and that Mexico represented a very attractive option," Goicoechea said.
Even with the possibility of a travel-chilling terrorist attack, he said, the Mexican government is promoting tourism as a long-term job generator for such underdeveloped areas as Chiapas and Oaxaca. He and others contend Mexico could rise to be among the world's top five tourist destinations.
Others are betting that way, too. This month, United Airlines announced seven new flights to Mexico, the Caribbean and Costa Rica for the winter holiday season.
Mexico's tourism numbers plummeted in the wake of Sept. 11. Half a million fewer Americans visited in 2002 than in 2000, but that number rebounded to 9.2 million last year, slightly more than in 2000.
The number of visiting cruise ship passengers and timeshare hotel purchases resumed their previous growth rates last year, at a time when travel experts said cruises were the fastest-growing segment of international tourist travel.
The number of Europeans visiting Mexico has also rebounded, from a steep drop to 362,000 in 2001 back to 443,000 last year.
"A lot of Italians love to go to the Middle East and Egypt, but they are not going there now. They're coming here, to the other side," said Andrea Tamagnini, an Italian who runs a beach camp on Espiritu Santo island off the Baja coast.
Travel analysts say the overwhelming concern of tourists now is security, with affordability close behind.
Mexico has stepped up security checks, creating occasional bottlenecks at Mexico City's airport. But officials say they have tried to be more vigilant without swamping tourist destinations with police.
"In contrast to the U.S., our final objective is not security, but to satisfy the tourists," Goicoechea said.
The explosion of small bombs outside three banks in the state of Morelos recently raised fears about political violence here. But officials played down the threat, saying it appeared to be the work of a local group angry over the country's economic policies and a recent state corruption scandal. No one was injured.
In Cabo San Lucas, a 90-minute flight from Los Angeles, hotel and timeshare operators say they have the right mix of sun, sport and security to keep attracting wary U.S. travelers. At least four hotels are under construction.
"This is what Americans want," said Douglas Dodge, manager of the Sunset Beach, looking out over the walled-off, expansive hotel grounds, with oceanside suites, restaurants, multiple pools and 50 golf carts whisking guests around.
The owner, Ernesto Coppel, said revenue from his Puerto Bonito luxury hotel chain is up 30 percent from before the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Sunset Beach was just opening in 2001, and initially it had a wave of cancellations. But Coppel said management only slightly slowed its schedule of adding rooms until the hotel is completed in 2007. About half of its planned 700 rooms have been finished.
"After September 11 I was worried, but in the back of my mind I knew that if people were going to travel, they were going to go away from where all the action is," Coppel said. "What are they [terrorists] going to destroy here? A hotel? In one block in Las Vegas, they have as many rooms as in all of Cabo."
On the main strip downtown, lined with bars and shops, security was the top consideration for American tourists. While some boasted of braving recent trips to Paris or cruises through the Panama Canal, others said they did not expect ever to travel as freely as they had in the past.
"I wouldn't go to Egypt or Spain, anywhere over there," said Charlie Clark, 59, a banker shopping downtown with his wife and another couple from Miami. "I'd like to go to Thailand, Bali or down in there, but now I have no desire to go."
In a doorway a few shops down, Henkel, the California teacher, and his friend Brian Hurst said they had come to Cabo for the wedding of Henkel's son. They had gone fishing and said they hadn't worried about security as they might have elsewhere.
"It'll never be the same," said Hurst, 68, also a retired teacher. "Now it's Mexico, Hawaii or Alaska, and Canada."