Mexico, the world’s 6th most popular tourist destination, is open for tourism business despite its cases of COVID-19 being on the rise. The pressure to reopen comes from economic need, as tourism accounts for about 10 percent of Mexico's economy, directly. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in a country where the informal economy dominates at about 60 percent of the workforce.
Reluctant to close before its big bang Easter tourism season, Mexico eventually did so. Still, the flights kept coming, from the U.S. and Europe. The cruise ships kept docking. And many people (including its president, the populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, aka AMLO) hoped that somehow, Mexico would simply weather the storm, out of as much of a stubborn sense of nationalistic pride as a very staunch reality: staying at home and not going out to work is a privilege afforded to few, who in general already are privileged enough to have savings or a job that can be done without having to leave the house.
Mexico was closed to tourism until June 1, when the first tourists arrived in Los Cabos and then to Cancún on June 11. Cancún (the country’s most visited international tourist destination besides Mexico City) was the 8th most-searched-for destination from within the U.S. in June, according to Skyscanner.
Meanwhile, Mexican Finance Minister Arturo Herrera announced on Thursday (June 25) that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Just days prior, he had stood next to AMLO at a pair of events: neither wore a face mask.
But for now, from Mexico City to Oaxaca and beyond, many parts of the country are bustling in a more or less typical manner. Markets are open with many workers wearing face masks and others not. People are walking the streets of Puerto Vallarta again, though the federal government still recommends that people stay at home unless it’s necessary to go out. The states that are open, among them the country’s top destinations, as of this publication, are open at 30 percent capacity.
Half of the country remains on lockdown: no restaurants, no hotels, no beaches. Even in states with lower cases of COVID-19, like Baja California Sur, individual businesses alert mostly obliging patrons that face masks are required, especially upon entering supermarkets and pharmacies, while waiters call out from behind a face mask to passersby on the streets, offering margaritas now that the months-long restrictions on alcohol sales (to prevent gatherings) have been lifted.
While the land border is closed, if you go to Mexico via air, you will not be alone. Cancún is getting back on track with dozens of flights per day and Mexico City receiving hundreds, including international. These numbers represent about a quarter of pre-pandemic normalcy, but flight frequency is expected to rise soon. You are likely to have your temperature tested at the airport. In international tourist towns such as Los Cabos, Cancún, Puerto Vallarta, and Mexico City, you’ll find that every business aimed at travelers is eager to welcome you inside. Perhaps only a small percentage would do so begrudgingly.
Mexico entered its lockdown a bit later than the rest of the world and like everyone else, hoped it would be short. But reality sank in. There would be no quick way around COVID-19, especially not for a country without stimulus packages and vast unemployment options. Eventually, and sooner than later, people would have to get back to work. Which is exactly where we find ourselves now. Being willing to forgo its traditionally busy national tourism explosion around Easter was a big step, and likely prevented an outbreak at that time. But the outbreak has arrived. And the bills won’t pay themselves.
In Todos Santos during what would typically have been Easter vacation, citizens blocked the city off from the hour-plus highway route north from Los Cabos with mounds of dirt and sand; and east from La Paz with a citizen’s brigade wearing face masks and monitoring people for their own face masks as they left and re-entered the town.
The goal of the blockade, which lasted more than a week, was to prevent the spread of COVID-19 into the town, which has a small emergency medical center but depends on the La Paz and Los Cabos areas for hospitals. This just weeks after a group of University of Texas-Austin spring breakers, with the blessing of their travel agents, decided to continue with their trip to Los Cabos and 27 wound up testing positive for the virus.
Juan David Orozco, chef and co-owner of Jardín Alquimia in Todos Santos, has picked up side jobs as he found himself without work. To reinvent how the bar can sell cocktails, Jardín Alquimia began bottling signature cocktails for home delivery. To cover the income he’s lost from the bar, Orozco has taken to delivering fruit and veggie boxes from a local organic farm and selling his home-baked bread across the town.
“We closed really early; at the beginning of March and have been closed since,” Orozco says. “The timing of this crisis came at a really inconvenient moment of the year. We were having a good season, and here the tourist season starts to go down in the summer, so we lost four months of our good season.”
Heavily populated by full-time foreign residents (many retired) who followed the World Health Organization’s recommended lockdown from the beginning, Orozco doesn’t imagine even the slow season seeing normal revenue as many such residents, loyal clients who help the bar get through the slow summer months, continue with voluntary shelter-in-place lifestyles.
Now, Jardín Alquimia is set to open the last week of June, right as Todos Santos enters the slowest part of the year for tourism. State laws in Baja California Sur have forced the bar to close by 10 p.m. Without typical revenue, the bar won’t be able to pay musicians and so, Orozco says, temporarily the bar will lose its beloved music vibe and its regular Wednesday night popularity even as it ups food options in effort to counterbalance.
The number of COVID-19 infections has doubled in Latin America over the past two months, topping 2 million in late June; Mexico with 200,000 cases since the pandemic began. Numerous sources estimate the number to be much higher, with wide reports of falsely attributed deaths to pneumonia for lack of testing and in effort to avoid offering financial assistance, per government order, to families who lost someone to the pandemic.
In late June, the World Bank estimated that Mexico’s economy would fall by about 7.5 percent, compared with 6.1 percent in the U.S. and 5.2 percent worldwide. Much of this fall can be directly linked to the sudden drop in international tourism brought on by the pandemic.
Mexico confirmed its first three cases on February 28, during the height of the country’s international tourism season. Receiving 10 million cruiseship and 50 million international airline passengers per year, most of those between Thanksgiving and Easter, it’s likely the virus was here sooner. It then went into various stages of lockdown in late March and early April, depending on the state and municipality.
Undersecretary of Health Hugo López-Gatell, who has held daily, televised conferences since early March argued from the beginning that Mexico’s social situation as a developing country (with 50 percent of the population living in poverty and the street economy accounting for more than half of the workforce) meant the vast majority of people would not be able to quarantine for a long period of time.
And this has proved largely true. With differentiation from state to state, businesses which were forced to close in April reopened in early June, despite rising numbers of COVID-19. The only economic assistance afforded to Mexican citizens during the lockdown period were advances in social security pensions for older citizens.
Back when many of us thought of the pandemic as more of an extreme weather phenomenon that might last a few weeks, Cancún and Riviera Maya resorts and hotels, including extremely popular Xcaret (a Mayan-themed complex including amusement parks, beaches, hotels and restaurants), deemed their properties the best place to isolate and ride out the storm. That was short lived, as the shutdown reached Quintana Roo state in late March. Xcaret now has a page on its website dedicated to its new safety measures and “strongly recommends” the use of face masks which it provides to guests and visitors upon arrival in a “health kit.”
It would not be inaccurate to gesture that any nonessential business operating during a pandemic in a country with increasing cases of infection, receiving primarily tourists from a country with increasing rates of infection, is putting at risk the health of its employees in exchange for profit. In Mexico, where minimum wage is the equivalent of $5.34 per DAY (the Mexican peso dropped to a record low in March) and staff at hotels and restaurants typically pool tips, there is extreme disparity in the economy of the tourists and the locals.
Yet, in many ways, going to a resort at 30 percent or 60 percent capacity where you can order room service delivered under highly sanitized conditions and spend most of the day isolated with a view or outside, appropriately distanced from other people, is the best way to travel to Mexico right now. On the other hand, knowing how much of your money is going to staff who depend on it versus the hotel owners who make a killing off of paying low wages, is nearly impossible.
Other destinations in Mexico which are more off the radar to foreign tourists will likely experience a slight boom of national tourism under the reopening that will help restore the economy. But that presents its own problems. Many of the country’s official “pueblos mágicos” or magic towns have a high concentration of elderly people, are small and remote and lack sufficient health care as it is.
Acapulco, Mexico’s first international beach town, remains closed as the country’s daily rate of COVID-19 infections on the rise, with between 3-5,000 new cases per day as of mid June. Abraham Garay Velázquez, General Director of Trust for Acapulco’s tourism board, says the city is suffering.
Blasted by a bad international reputation and competing markets from other touristic centers in the country, Acapulco went from being Hollywood’s starry-eyed vision of Mexico with primarily international tourists from the 1950s-80s to a 90 percent domestic travel destination since the 1990s.
Numbers of international travelers were up significantly earlier this year, as people find themselves attracted to the old port town and its combination of beach beauty, history and party zone, but COVID-19 halted it all. About 300,000 jobs in Acapulco are directly tied to tourism, not including jobs which form the informal economy. The state of Guerrero has lost 50,000 formal jobs since the beginning of the pandemic, most of which were in Acapulco, Garay Velázquez says.
“As stated by the governor of the state, Héctor Astudillo, the most important thing at the moment is the health of the people of Guerrero, however, after three months of contingency, the economic situation is very difficult for companies and workers in Acapulco and the social pressure is increasing,” Garay Velázquez says, pointing to Mexico’s color-coded alert system, divided by state, for the COVID-19 phases.
For now, Acapulco remains in the red, which means its beach and tourist establishments are not open. Once it changes to orange, hotels will be able to 30 percent capacity, in yellow at 60 percent and in green at 100 percent. At press time, half of Mexico’s states remain under level red and half under level orange.
With half of its population living in poverty and a middle class that lives in delicate balance of having just enough, many people in Mexico have no choice but to barrel through the pandemic head first. Unfortunately, people who depend on tourism will have to make choices between COVID-19 risk and earning money.
Traveling to a country for fun during the middle of its pandemic crisis is silly. Even more so when cases are rising in your own country. Are there people who need you to travel here in order for them to survive? Without changing anything about our social and economic systems, yes. And that is immensely screwed up.
That said, for tourists insisting on visiting Mexico, whether next week or six months from now, consider supporting Mexican-owned boutique hotels (keep local businesses alive, financially, somewhat), Airbnbs, and Vrbos. Drink and dine away from the chains, and tip well. Most restaurants, including small mom and pop shops, have added delivery as a commonplace option. As in the U.S., probably the people running these hotels and other accommodations are in the upper middle to upper class range, but they are more likely to directly support small, local businesses than big block hotels and can help you find an appropriate way to do so as well.
If you’re going to travel anywhere, especially by air, you have to consider what you’ll be bringing with you. Mexico does not have a policy that enforces people to quarantine in place upon arrival. The ethical, honorable and only reasonable way to travel right now (besides not traveling right now) is to assume you could be a carrier, and realize that the people whom you come into contact with might not have the same access to quality healthcare that you do.
In the case of Mexico, while it has a decent socialized and solid privatized health care system, both options are limited outside of larger cities and even then so, they are already taxed. Wherever you go, maintain six feet of distance between yourself and others. Follow the recommendations of wearing face masks in public, especially if you’re flying in, and take the sanitary precautions recommended for air travel.
While it might seem like this pandemic thing has gone on long enough, travel officials are now frank that the “new normal” will not be in any way fleeting.
Freddy Dominguez, VP of Account Management in Latin America for Travel Partners Group at Expedia Group, the world’s largest online travel booking system, says restoring travel in the region will take an “unprecedented level of partnership” between the public and private sectors.
“Most Latin American countries are in or about to reach their peak of COVID-19 infection, so the recovery process will take longer than other regions or countries of the world,” Dominguez says, adding that special funding has been allocated to support Latin American destinations and to enforce specific sanitary conditions and more flexible cancellation policies. “To overcome this crisis, the tourism industry, and, especially, small businesses, need support and concrete actions.”
Dominguez cites 2019 World Travel & Tourism Council data that states “the travel sector generated almost 17 million jobs in Latin America, this is, almost 8 percent of the total workforce in Latin America. It also contributed almost 305 million dollars to GDP, which represented 8.1 percent for the Latin American economy.”
Across the globe, countries, states and cities are experiencing different waves of the virus. But none of it is good. We could all benefit from taking a moment to consider how our travel impacts the places we visit and how our economic systems are essentially a house of cards. One strong blow, and the entire machine crashes.
Mexico has long been good to foreign tourists who are eager to return. But how to care for those whose livelihoods depend on our whims and vices? We haven’t got that nearly figured out yet.
Choosing to support local businesses on your next trip would be a good start. Seeking out restaurants and shops that work directly with producers and artists is another start.
In Mexico, the middleman is the one who makes bank. How can you make sure your money goes directly to the people who are providing a service for you (and who depend on your money for their economic survival) and not to Mexican or international elite? Mostly by going off the beaten path and finding things for yourself and paying those people directly.
But for right now, pandemic now, sipping room delivery cocktails at a low-capacity resort might be the safest route for all involved. If you are to go down that route at all.
Megan Frye is an independent journalist and translator living in Mexico. She has a history of newsroom journalism as well as non-profit administration and works with international and Mexican publications.