Lockdown in Latin America: When will travel restart in the world's new coronavirus epicentre?

Chris Moss
Rio de Janeiro: Brazil has been one of the worst hit countries in the world - getty

As coronavirus cases and deaths continue to fall in the UK, mainland Europe and some US states, attention has switched to Brazil, where almost 400,000 cases have been recorded as of May 27, as well as 24,512 deaths. 

The overall outlook is grim. Densely populated cities, insanitary conditions in favelas and slums, an absence of leadership, most notably by Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, and poor management of social distancing and quarantine regimes have exacerbated the deadly impact of the virus.

A much recycled headline is that “South America is the new Covid-19 epicentre," based on a remark made by Dr Michael Ryan, an emergencies director at WHO during a press conference. Some media have expanded this to encompass “Latin America” and the “Americas”. But whichever way you look at it, a continental land mass bigger than Europe cannot be an epicentre.

In fact, the picture across Latin America and the Caribbean is nuanced. Argentina, with a population of around 45million has registered less than 500 coronavirus-related deaths to date, Bolivia fewer than 300, and Paraguay only 11. 

It’s a complex picture for prospective travellers and those planning visits. In late April, Argentina announced a ban on commercial flights to/from the country until September 1 – one of the most draconian measures anywhere on the globe.

Brazil closed its borders to foreign arrivals until May 28. While no one is likely to visit in the near future, the vast nation has seen the outbreak affect regions in different ways. While Covid-19 has spread rapidly in urban centres along the coast and in densely populated states, notably São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Pará, far-flung Acre and Mato Grosso do Sul – home to the Pantanal wetlands – have seen relatively low numbers of cases and deaths. 

On May 25, Portugal's flag carrier TAP Air Portugal announced plans to operate flights to Brazilian destinations from June, with frequencies increasing in July. Brazil Airways, which flies direct to several Latin American cities, including Buenos Aires, Lima and Santiago de Chile, has said it is planning a “meaningful return to service” in July, subject to restrictions being eased.

Subsidiaries of Latam, the region’s largest carrier, and Avianca, the second largest, have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the US; Latam continues to operate domestic and some international routes.

Argentina has fared well during the crisis - getty

Mexico seems to be peaking now, with concentrations of cases and fatalities in Mexico City and the surrounding state, and also in Baja California. A testing regime of 1,702 tests per million residents as of 25 May (as compared with 50,979 per million in the UK) has been widely criticised. 

Nonetheless, the authorities say they plan to reopen tourism to Quintana Roo, including Cancun, Tulum and the Mayan Riviera, around June 8-10. Delta has announced flights to several Mexican destinations from its US hubs as of June. 

The country says the new promotional slogan will be “Mexico needs you”.

In Central America, the worst affected country is Panama, with 313 deaths. Costa Rica has reported 10, Belize just 2 deaths. While a full picture of the situation won’t be clear for weeks or months, none of the numbers come close to those in most Western European countries.

Costa Rica began easing some coronavirus measures on May 1, allowing theatres, cinemas and gyms to reopen with reduced hours. Its 29 national parks and wildlife reserves, which closed on March 20, have started to reopen; 13 national parks, including Manuel Antonio NP and Arenal Volcano NP, and the popular, privately owned Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, were given the green light to open on May 18. Costa Rica has barred foreign tourists until at least June 15.

Meanwhile Belize’s borders will remain closed to all visitors until at least June 30, but this could be extended.

Costa Rica has begun to reopen - getty

Bosses at one of the UK’s most established specialist operators, Journey Latin America, do not think anyone will be travelling before autumn at the earliest. 

“Some 60 per cent of our customers whose upcoming holidays have been cancelled have opted to postpone,” says managing director Sarah Bradley. “We are seeing some key trends emerging for post-pandemic travel: self-drive, bucket list holidays and once-in-a lifetime experiences are all things that our clients are enquiring about.  

“Similarly our suppliers on the ground are starting to creatively look at how they can adapt to post-crisis tourism needs and minimise the impact on guests.” 

For those making plans, an early booking might be an opportunity to bag a deal, she says.

“As demand returns, prices look set to increase as availability for the most sought after experiences diminishes. And as tourism slowly opens up again there is the possibility of seeing some of Latin America’s major attractions without the crowds," she says.

“We are taking new bookings but they are all for 2021 and we believe that consumer confidence will need to return for domestic tourism, Europe and then long haul will be last.”  

The Caribbean has seen relatively few cases, with very low numbers in most islands. Cuba, the largest country in the West Indies, has recorded a little under 2,000 cases and 82 deaths. There are indications from the Ministry of Tourism that in July Cubans will be able to undertake some holiday travel. American Airlines recently announced its intention to resume Miami-Havana flights as of June 4, with four daily flights.

The worst affected country in the region is the Dominican Republic, which has reported 468 deaths. Most of the smaller Caribbean islands plan to reopen borders from early June. The UK Foreign Office still “advises British nationals against all but essential international travel”.

As summer arrives here, most of Latin America enters either a cool or a dry season, while the Caribbean prepares for hurricanes and tropical storms. If the region opens for business by late autumn, it could spur an influx of travellers keen to escape the cold and wet – and a possible winter surge of coronavirus cases in Europe.

“Latin America has some strong points of differentiation which should help kick-start the region’s travel industry once restrictions are lifted,” says Colin Stewart, chairman of the Latin American Travel Association,

“These include the fact it attracts a more adventurous traveller that is less risk averse, wide-open natural spaces with strong tourism potential away from crowded centres, strong sustainability and community-led initiatives, and long lead times in terms of bookings.

“While this is a challenging time for all our members and all the people that rely on tourism across the continent, the Latin American travel industry has always proved to be a resilient one and we have every confidence that beyond summer 2020 we will begin to see a revitalisation in the industry.”