Boat seizures over $70 permits present another black eye for Mexican tourism

The Bay of Acapulco, Mexico. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Bernandino HernandezDespite concerns about the bloody drug war and periodic reports of tourists being murdered, Mexico remains a very popular destination for sun-seeking Canadians.

Now the Mexican government is giving snowbirds something else to worry about.

Heavily armed Mexican marines and government tax agents stormed several marinas catering to foreign boats recently and slapped seizure orders on more than 300, The Associated Press reports.

The reason? The boats' owners, mostly American and Canadian retirees who cruise the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, are accused of not having a US$70 permit to tie up in Mexico.

U.S. officials are in contact with their Mexican counterparts to discuss the issue, AP said, adding that Canadian Foreign Affairs officials know of three Canadian boats that were seized in the November raids.

The operation is part of the Mexican government's new effort to improve the country's abysmal tax-collection rate, one of the worst among the world's large economies, AP said. The initiative has resulted in new sales taxes and levies on home sales that have angered Mexicans.

The move against foreign boaters to ensure they have what's called a Temporary Import Permit seems especially heavy-handed and counter-productive.

The document, which can be obtained online, proves the boats are owned by the permit-holder and affirms the owners will not leave or sell them in Mexico, AP said.

Officials inspected more than 1,600 boats at eight marinas and launched seizure orders against 338 that supposedly lacked the permit. The Mexican Treasury Department told AP it has four months to decide whether to release the vessels or sell them at auction.

[ Related: Mexico aims to lure more Canadians after record year ]

The action sparked confusion among boat owners, many of whom said they have the permits but were not asked to show them, while others said minor errors in the paperwork were used as a pretext to seize their boats, AP reported. Other owners said they were not on their boats at the time of the raids and were only notified of the seizure by marina operators.

The nature of the raids shocked the retirees, who at first thought they were witnessing an assault against drug dealers.

"They brought all these marines, with machine-guns and stuff, and they kind of descended on the marina and everybody's going, 'Wow, there's a big narco thing going down here,'" Richard Spindler, whose boat was seized near Puerto Vallarta, told AP. "These are just retired people, 50-, 60-year-old retired people, mellow people. It was way over the top."

Adding to the uncertainty, officials did not put notices or chains on the boats they impounded, making some owners unsure if their boats were among those seized, AP said. Owners worry if they might be stopped if they try to sail away.

Canada is second only to the United States in the number of tourists visiting Mexico each year, roughly 1.6 million by air in 2012, according Travel Industry Today. The totals have climbed steadily despite continuing concerns about safety due to the war between the Mexican government and drug cartels, as well as occasional attacks on tourists.

The figures are even more impressive, given that only 5.8 million Americans visited Mexico by air despite having 10 times the population, the tourism-industry web site noted. A lot of Americans, though, and some Canadians travel to Mexico by car.

Seaborne visitors represent a relatively small proportion of Mexico's tourism sector but the tax raid is rippling through the industry that caters to them.

[ Related: How much should crime risk factor into a Mexican winter getaway? ]

"This is killing nautical tourism in a worse way than drug trafficking, because it's the government itself that is taking the yachts," Enrique Fernandez, a member of Mexico's Association of Marinas, told AP.

Spindler, who has sailed to Mexico for 36 years and publishes a sailing magazine called Latitude 38, blogged this week that Mexican tax authorities are also getting push-back from other government agencies, such as its tourism department.

The action is also spurring yacht racers to cancel plans to participate in popular Mexican events, he said, including the government-backed Mexorc Regatta.

"The Mexican government regularly invests several million dollars in that event," Spindler wrote, adding that other yacht races that normally are held in Mexican waters are being revised to avoid them.

"The bottom line is that a lot of boat owners, boat businesses, boat workers, and a wonderful destination country are suffering for the blundering of one new sub-agency of the Mexican IRS," Spindler wrote.

Spindler told AP the boat-grab punishes some of Mexico's biggest boosters, sailors who come back every year and support the country's marinas and boatyards.

"This is the killer, these people are the greatest ambassadors for Mexico you have ever heard," Spindler said. "It's given Mexico a really black eye."