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FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Mexico is relying on travelers from countries like Russia and Brazil to boost its tourism numbers this year after the drug war plaguing the country deterred U.S. visitors, its largest source of tourists.
The number of international tourists arriving on flights is expected to rise between 9 and 10 percent this year from the 22.7 million in 2011, Tourism Minister Gloria Guevara told Reuters in an interview in Frankfurt.
"We are diversifying by promoting culture and gastronomy and broadening the base of nationalities who visit," she said. "Before we were too dependent on the U.S., and sun and sand."
She said international arrivals by air had risen 7 percent between January and March, with tourist numbers from Brazil up 70.5 percent and Russia up 63 percent, helped by easier visa application processes.
The rise in tourists from Russia is similar to that seen in Tunisia and Egypt after the Arab Spring uprisings shattered bookings from traditional markets like Britain, France and Germany, while the increased spending power of the Brazilians has made them attractive consumers.
However, the arrival figures given by the minister do not include 'excursionists' - those coming in via car across the U.S-Mexico border.
While the number of people flying in has increased over the last few years, arrivals from across the border have slumped from around 80 million in the early 2000s to under 60 million, according to ministry statistics.
"Yes we have an issue, but you can't generalize," Guevara said. "There are of course towns near the U.S. border that have problems, but does that mean the whole border area is unsafe? No."
The minister did not give an outlook for 'excursionist' arrivals in 2012.
Accounting for 9 percent of gross domestic product, tourism is a vital source of income for the country. But gangland decapitations, kidnappings and extortion have tarnished the image of once glossy resorts like Acapulco.
Among recent incidents, 49 people were decapitated near the northern city of Monterrey, and nine victims were hanged from a bridge in the city of Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo, Texas.
Overall, more than 50,000 people have died in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown on drug traffickers after taking office in late 2006.
Guevara said Mexico's task was to try to educate people that Mexico was a huge country, with distances between northern troublespots and certain tourist areas equivalent to those between Madrid and Moscow.
"We have 2,500 municipalities, and of those 80 have issues," she said.
Additional reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City; Editing by Michael Roddy