TULUM, Mexico – The friends from Jackson, Mississippi, relaxed on lounge chairs, dug into a white sand beach, and romped in the turquoise Caribbean waters, grateful for a break from the pandemic winter in the United States.
They were among the tens of thousands of American tourists who perished on Mexico’s glittering Caribbean beaches in late 2020 and early this year. The state of Quintana Roo, the crown jewel of tourism in the country that is home to Cancun, the Riviera Maya and Tulum, received 961,000 tourists on this route – almost half from the USA – and only 25% fewer than last year.
“You come here and it’s a sigh of relief from all the turmoil of COVID,” said Latron Evans, a 40-year-old Jackson firefighter.
However, concerns are mounting that the success of the winter vacation could be fleeting as COVID-19 infections reached new heights – and emerged as new, easier-to-spread infections in both Mexico and the US, the main source of foreign tourists A variant was emerging in the USA. If a sharp rise in infections resulted in another shutdown of the tourism sector, the effects would be devastating.
Tourism accounts for 87% of Quintana Roo’s gross domestic product, State Tourism Minister Marisol Vanegas Pérez said. The state has lost roughly 90,000 tourism jobs – only 10,000 of which have returned – and countless others that depend on tourism.
Flights from the U.S. dried up last spring when the pandemic hit, but have grown steadily since then. In December, Quintana Roo was recording an average of 460 arrivals and departures per day, compared to a pre-pandemic average of 500, Vanegas said.
The increase in American tourists helped offset the number of Europeans, whose number has continued to decline sharply. During this pandemic-ridden holiday season, more U.S. tourists came to Quintana Roo than a year earlier, when the world was just starting to learn about the coronavirus. They made up 9 out of 10 foreign tourists, Vanegas said.
And they’re staying longer, and some are apparently waiting for the pandemic on the beach, she said.
Officials are striving to “create a tourist bubble that instills confidence in everything a tourist does,” Vanegas said, describing how visitors get from the airport to a van to a hotel and then to tour sun-drenched archaeological sites by the Authorities have been certified by state health.
“Where there might be a risk is if you leave this bubble,” she said.
For example the throbbing crowd that packed shoulder to shoulder – many without a mask – in the streets and clubs of the city center 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, theaters, salons, and other businesses are allowed to operate 60% and gyms 50%. Hotels can book with 70% capacity.
Evans, the Mississippi firefighter, said he was impressed with health efforts everywhere. “They take the temperature when you enter the building and give you hand sanitizer wherever you go,” he said.
His friend Gearald Green, a 32-year-old music producer from Jackson who infected almost everyone in his immediate circle of friends, said the climate and outdoor life on the beach had created trust.
“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 are standing on top of each other,” he said.
Vanegas said the state health department aggressively pursues all reported infections. Still, there are worrying signs. The rate of positivity on COVID-19 tests across the state is nearly 50%, and the weekly number of COVID-19 deaths has quadrupled from the week before Christmas to the week after, according to the federal government.
Health experts fear that the increase in travel during the holiday season is likely to spike in places where it previously seemed under control.
“Epidemic activity will pick up again in the most popular travel destinations,” said Dr. Mauricio Rodríguez from the medical school of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, citing beach destinations like Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco and Quintana Roo and the Riviera Maya.
The southern state of Oaxaca, which attracts tourists to its colonial capital as well as its laid-back Pacific beaches, had half the tourists this holiday season as it did a year before. State Tourism Minister Juan Carlos Rivera said that wasn’t bad given the pandemic.
“We’re going to experience an economic recession in terms of tourism in the coming months, not just in Oaxaca across the country,” said Rivera.
When infections ramp up, pressure to close beaches again like last spring rises, resulting in massive layoffs.
When the pandemic hit Mexico, large hotels began laying off workers with so-called “solidarity breaks”. Workers were told it was temporary, that they would be reinstated in a month’s time, and most were fired without the benefits they deserved.
There has been little debate about the health risks of promoting tourism versus the economic impact of losing all of those jobs, said Alejandro Palafox-Muñoz, professor of tourism at the University of Quintana Roo. The people who lost those jobs had no choice but to look for new jobs to support their families, he said.
Saily Camacho, 25, had worked for a beach club on Cozumel Island for two years, as a hostess, tour sales and cash register. Less than two weeks after the first COVID-19 infection in Mexico, she was unemployed.
Camacho was making commissions from tour sales and could make $ 110 on a good day. After she was released, she lived on her savings for a month and thought that she would be reinstated. She put her degree on hold.
Her mother and two siblings also lost their jobs in the tourism sector. Her mother – and many others – tried to make a living by selling groceries from their homes on social networks.
Her mother, a hotel maid, finally started a new hotel job this month. After a long search, Camacho was hired as a cashier in a supermarket, where it takes her almost two weeks to earn what she did on a good day at the beach club.
“I used to work to save for my future, to buy a house, to buy a car,” said Camacho. “And now I honestly only work to get through, for food, for expenses.”
She still has coronavirus concerns but admitted she was lifted by the return of tourists. “Seeing tourists was really exciting because it’s the island’s livelihood,” she said.