Mexico sees holiday bump in tourism amid pandemic surge
The friends from Jackson, Mississippi were among tens of thousands of American tourists who descended on Mexico’s glittering Caribbean beaches at the close of 2020 and the start of this year.
Quintana Roo state, the country’s tourism crown jewel and home to Cancun, the Riviera Maya and Tulum, received 961,000 tourists during that stretch – nearly half from the United States – down only 25 per cent from the previous year.
“You come here and it’s a sigh of relief from all the turmoil of the COVID,” said Latron Evans, a 40-year-old Jackson firefighter.
But concern is spreading that the winter holiday success could be fleeting, because it came as COVID-19 infections in both Mexico and the United States, the main source of the foreign tourists, were reaching new heights – and as a new, more easily spread variant was beginning to emerge in the US. If a sharp rise in infections forces a new shutdown of the tourism sector, the effects would be devastating.
Tourism accounts for 87 per cent of Quintana Roo’s gross domestic product, said state Tourism Secretary Marisol Vanegas Pérez. The state lost some 90,000 tourism jobs – only 10,000 of which have come back – and countless others that depend on tourism.
Flights from the US dried up last spring as the pandemic took hold, but have risen steadily since then. In December, Quintana Roo was averaging 460 air arrivals and departures per day compared to a pre-pandemic average of 500, Vanegas said.
The increase in American tourists helped compensate for the Europeans, whose numbers remain sharply down. More US tourists came to Quintana Roo during this pandemic-stricken holiday season than a year earlier, when the world was just beginning to learn of the coronavirus. They accounted for nine out of 10 foreign tourists, Vanegas said.
And they are staying longer, with some seemingly waiting out the pandemic at the beach, she said.
Officials strive to “create a tourist bubble that generates confidence in everything a tourist does,” Vanegas said, describing how the visitors move from the airport to a van to a hotel, and then to tours of sun-splashed archaeological sites certified by state health authorities.
“Where there could be risk is when they leave that bubble,” she said.
For example, the throbbing crowd that packed shoulder to shoulder – many not wearing masks – in downtown streets and clubs to ring in the new year in Playa del Carmen, the lively beach town between Cancun and Tulum.
Indoor venues also pose a risk: Restaurants, theatres, salons and other businesses are permitted to operate at 60 per cent capacity, and indoor gyms at 50 per cent. Hotels can book at 70 per cent capacity.
Evans, the Mississippi firefighter, said he was impressed by the health measures everywhere he went. “They’re taking temperatures when you enter the building and giving you hand sanitiser every place you go,” he said.
His friend, Gearald Green, a 32-year-old music producer from Jackson, where nearly everyone in his immediate circle of friends has been infected, said the climate and outdoor-focused beach living inspired confidence.
“I don’t have to try an extra amount to keep social distance because it’s the beach, it’s water, and when you come out it’s not like a lot of people on top of one another,” he said.
Vanegas said the state health department aggressively traces any reported infections. Still, there are worrisome signs. The positivity rate on COVID-19 tests in the state is nearly 50 per cent, and the weekly number of COVID-19 deaths quadrupled from the week before Christmas to the week after, according to federal government data.
Health experts fear the increase in travel through the holiday season will likely lead to spikes in places that previously seemed to have it under control.
“In the most popular tourist destinations, you’re going to have epidemic activity increase again in a big way,” said Dr Mauricio Rodríguez of the medical school at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, citing beach destinations like Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Quintana Roo and the Riviera Maya.
The southern state of Oaxaca, which draws tourists to its colonial capital as well as its laid-back Pacific beaches, had half the number of tourists this holiday season as a year earlier. State Tourism Secretary Juan Carlos Rivera said that wasn’t bad, considering the pandemic.
“We are going to enter in ... an economic recession in terms of tourism in the coming months, not only in Oaxaca, in the whole country,” Rivera said.
If infections increase sharply, pressure will build to close beaches again like last spring, spurring massive lay-offs.