Despite being hit hard by the coronavirus, Mexico is one of the only countries in the world that never closed its borders to tourists during the pandemic. The bet: to reactivate an economy in crisis. Its beaches and its permissiveness have attracted Western tourists in search of sun and freedom during a year of many restrictions. But these visitors increasingly see Mexico as a refuge where the virus can be ignored … The local authorities say they are overwhelmed by the carelessness of these reckless tourists.
It is a warm January night. In the middle of the jungle, near Tulum, a chic and bohemian beach destination on the Mexican Riviera Maya, the electronic rhythms of a clandestine party resonate, in which Sarah, a 30-year-old woman from New York, participates.
“It is a secret place, so we had to go to a meeting point with 50 other people and from there a bus took us to the place of the party. It’s right on the outskirts of town – the police have to know. Once there, we hallucinate: there are more than 300 people. It is not massive but it is not a small committee either! And they are all dancing, sweating, huddled together… It seemed like a journey through time and space, ”says Sarah.
No test or quarantine
In Mexico, tourism contributes almost 9% of GDP. In a country where there was no economic support plan for companies and workers, the government made a bet: it decided not to close the borders to tourists. To enter Mexico you do not need to do a test or quarantine.
“Puerto Vallarta has no other. There is no other cement, 99.3% of income is tourism. So, it is very serious when this happens. Hotels and restaurants, for the most part, kept the majority of the plant. They are base personnel: they all earn the minimum wage. From what they live off is tips, not the salary. So right now they don’t get it! The municipal government and many communities, such as the foreign community, give away food every day, ”laments Ramón González Lomeli, the director of tourism for Puerto Vallarta, the most popular beach destination on the country’s Pacific coast.
The country took the first wave of the coronavirus very seriously, during the spring of 2020, and closed almost all its businesses. Tourism fell 90% and the sector lost five million jobs.
Misael López, a waiter at the Frida bar-restaurant, in the south of Puerto Vallarta, explains his situation: “My wife was a waitress, my father-in-law is a musician, but there is no job for him, and my mother-in-law works cleaning houses for gringos, Canadians, but since there is no job, there is no work. In February, when we heard about the Covid, she was immediately fired. Now he does crochet, my mother-in-law now just cleans a house and my father-in-law is now a mechanic.
Change of strategy
Traumatized by this experience, Mexico changed its strategy for the second wave that arrived in winter. They decided to find a way to combine sanitary restrictions and economic openness.
To reassure customers, the Mexican tourism industry spared no effort. They developed a hygiene protocol in cooperation with the Ministry of Health. The hotels, which operate with a reduced capacity, provide the Covid tests to their clients at the end of their stay. The largest resorts even offer packages with a nearly free room for quarantine in case of a positive test.
Cristina Oehmiche, a researcher in anthropology, studied the impact of the pandemic in Cancun, Mexico’s tourist jewel on the Caribbean coast. According to her, in these places, apart from comfort, it is about “showing this whole image that they are safe places. And in the case of the pandemic, I think that this image is being projected again, that tourists can arrive and can stay in these hotels in a safe and contagion-free way. And you see that the measures they take are extreme. In other words, the healthy distance inside the restaurants, the tables are placed at 3-4 meters, many tables outdoors… I notice that there is very strong care among all the employees ”.
But while waiters are properly equipped from head to toe to protect customers, the truth is that customers do not take as much care. On the boardwalk in Puerto Vallarta, tourists stroll and enjoy the sun. Less than half wear a mask.
Patty, Marilyn, and their friends just came from Minnesota. They laugh when they feel the air caress their uncovered faces. “We landed four hours ago… Now we have to enjoy ourselves !! The mask is supposed to be mandatory but here they are more permissive. At home they would have scolded us, ”they say.
The pandemic is exacerbating a power dynamic that has always existed, explains researcher Cristina Oehmichen: “Cancun is a city created expressly for tourism. It arose in the 90s to satisfy this demand for sun and beach tourism, largely oriented towards international tourism. These centers respond to certain imaginaries where the tourist seeks to get away from the stress of their daily routine, and what they find, then, are these spaces away from real problems. There has always been a power relationship between tourists and locals that was shown again. The tourist comes to be cared for. He’s the boss ”.
In his office, Ramón González Lomeli, Puerto Vallarta tourism director, feels overwhelmed by the casual behavior of tourists: “Tourists, oh! There is a very serious problem. It seems they said ‘We are in paradise’ and forgot about this. What worries us the most is seeing many foreigners who we thought would be a good example for us, because they understand the problem, it has hit them hard! And we saw that the same, they do not care! It seems that nothing happens here ”.
In front of these carefree visitors, the locals resign themselves, says Vallarta waiter Misael Lopez: “As long as you don’t tell them anything, I think it’s better, more come, they say ‘Oh well, Vallarta doesn’t have so many restrictions, we can come, we can do what that we want ‘: that’s the sad reality here. There are many parties in Vallarta, they can be private: in part, it benefits us but in part, it pisses us off. Sometimes news would reach us that ‘Hey, a client a week ago was here and now he has Covid’. For this, if I was scared. I am the pillar of my family so … I am the one who must take care of the most ”.
“There are not enough measures”
To attract visitors, the authorities of these beach destinations had a rather permissive interpretation of the sanitary restrictions. In Vallarta, this means that, with an orange traffic light, clubs and bars can open until 2 in the morning, at 50% of their capacity.
A difficult decision to combine with the image of responsible and safe tourism that the industry is trying to consolidate. “These cities like Vallarta, Cancun: most of the tourism lies perhaps in these clubs. There are simply not enough measures. In other words, it is not enough to be asked to wear a mask when entering. Here, if you can do everything in a joint, keeping other measurements elsewhere does not make sense, because we are all connected. In the end, the infections that may exist in a club can be transferred to infections the next day or to the cities of origin of these people ”, explains Dr. Isaac Diaz Chavez, a doctor at a public hospital in Sonora, in the north of the country.
Despite the concerns, so far Puerto Vallarta has been saved from a health disaster: “Here in Puerto Vallarta, we have not had any alarm. I have all the tourism directors in the country in a chat, and they are amazed because, for example, Cancun tells me we are very high, Riviera Maya too, those of Nayarit too. We do not have these alarming numbers here, thank God ”, Ramón González Lomeli is delighted.
The virus is present on Mexican beaches. In mid-March, a group of young Argentines went on vacation to Cancun. The tests that were done there were negative, but when they arrived in Buenos Aires, more than 40 of them tested positive. A scandal that caused Argentina to suspend its flights to Mexico, as Canada did in January and until the end of April. Already at the beginning of February the Pan American Health Organization had pointed to Mexico, warning that infections were increasing in its most touristy states.
Tulum, a “totally irresponsible” lifestyle
Sarah, the New Yorker who went to celebrate in Tulum, is not surprised by this diagnosis: “There are so many people who got Covid in Tulum. My friend for example. He lost his sense of smell and taste… It is not known exactly when it was infected – it is difficult to know when you spend five days partying. Covid is everywhere in Tulum because the lifestyle there is totally irresponsible. “
Coveted by the jet-set in search of paradisiacal landscapes, the city of Tulum is one of those that has attracted the most media attention for its wild parties. After a massive contagion during a festival authorized by the local government at the end of the year, the authorities tried to set limits.
But according to Víctor, a Colombian video producer and a regular there, the party has continued as before: “Nothing was published worldwide, but the festival existed. Mexico was looking at everything that had happened at the Art With Me festival, so worldwide they could not be allowed to make another scandal. They had to do the festival behind closed doors, just for very powerful people. And from paying a party to 100 or 200 dollars they raised it to 500. You are paying so that they do not screw you, so that they let you live again as you used to live, without thinking about the problem. Escape from reality. Tulum became a bubble of escape for the elite society ”, he says.
Need for a new type of tourism
On Mexican beaches, the pandemic has shown the limits of a tourism model that subordinates the needs of local communities to the requirements of tourists.
“When the pandemic began to take shape, there had already been a discussion about the limits of mass tourism, which is a type of tourism that has been expanding throughout the world with a strong impact on destinations. The pandemic put the entire sector in serious trouble. We have to go looking for alternatives, we need a more community type of tourism, which can even lead to a more harmonious relationship with the environment and between tourists and the local population ”, estimates the researcher Cristina Oehmichen.
At the end of March, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador once again boasted of the wonders of the country during a virtual tourism forum. While Mexico received more than 600 thousand foreign visitors on its beaches for Easter, the country exceeded 200 thousand deaths from coronavirus.
“ We have to continue promoting tourism. It doesn’t cost us much, because the beauties of Mexico are unique. They are all invited to Mexico, because the truth, the truth, like Mexico, there are not two, ”said the Mexican president.
If the country’s large beach centers continued to open their arms to tourists, some states tried to change course to prevent infections from firing up again during one of the most touristy weeks of the year.
Sonora, in the northwest of the country, decided to request a negative test from anyone who wanted to enter its beaches. While Chiapas, who had announced the closure of its beaches during Holy Week, had to give up the idea in the face of the anger of the merchants.