TULUM, Mexico (AP) — 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 tens of thousands of American tourists who descended on Mexico’s glittering Caribbean beaches at the close of 2020 and start of this year. Quintana Roo state, the country’s tourism crown jewel, home to Cancun, the Riviera Maya and Tulum, received 961,000 tourists during that stretch — nearly half from the U.S. — down only 25% 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 area’s winter holiday success could be fleeting, because it came as COVID-19 infections in both Mexico and the U.S., 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 U.S. If a sharp rise in infections forces a new shutdown of the tourism sector, the effects for Mexico would be devastating.
Tourism accounts for 87% of Quintana Roo’s gross domestic product, said state Tourism Secretary Marisol Vanegas Pérez. The state has lost some 90,000 tourism jobs — only 10,000 of which have come back — and countless others that depend on tourism.
Flights from the U.S. dried up last spring as the pandemic took hold but have risen steadily since then. In December, Quintana Roo was averaging 460 airport arrivals and departures per day compared to a pre-pandemic average of 500, Vanegas Pérez said.
The increase in American tourists helped compensate for the Europeans, whose numbers remain sharply down. More U.S. tourists came to Quintana Roo during the recent pandemic-stricken holiday season than a year earlier, when the world was just beginning to learn of the coronavirus. They accounted for 9 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 Pérez said, describing how the visitors move from the airport to a van to a hotel, and then to tours of archaeological sites certified by state health authorities.
“Where there could be risk is when they leave that bubble,” she said.
For example, a throbbing crowd of celebrants — many not wearing masks — packed shoulder-to-shoulder in downtown streets and clubs unsafely rang 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 permitted to operate at 60% capacity, and indoor gyms at 50%. Hotels can book at 70% capacity.
However, 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 sanitizer every place you go,” he said.