Mexico’s tourism-dependent economy is facing off against public health concerns amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. Travel websites give the distinct impression that Mexico’s tourism industry has every intent of carrying on business as usual through what has historically been one of its most lucrative seasons for international visitors: the March through April vacation period known as Spring Break. Tourism is without question a major engine of the nation’s economy, but at what point does concern for public health in a pandemic outweigh the lure of dollars?
Other nations experiencing the spread of the virus have implemented extraordinary measures like lockdowns and class cancellations, but life on the ground here in Mexico continues to carry on as normal. Schools are in session, people commute to and from work, and markets bustle with no signs of panic buying or shortages. Despite numerous COVID-19 related restrictions issued by other countries in Latin America, Mexico continues to allow in international air passengers as usual.
“The tenor throughout the country hasn’t been one of panic,” notes Azul Uribe, a freelance writer and professional translator from Cancun. The Riviera Maya, of which Cancun is a part, is by far Mexico’s most popular beach destination for international travelers arriving by air and by cruise ship. Uribe currently splits her time between her hometown and the city of Mérida, another tourist hub in the Yucatán Peninsula.
Speaking via WhatsApp Thursday afternoon, Uribe said she hadn’t seen much in the way of a widespread public awareness campaign to prepare locals for an influx of visitors from nations where the COVID-19 virus is currently snowballing. “There’s going to have to be because Cancun is hyper-aware of American politics because it depends on American travelers in order to meet its economic needs.”
The Cancun International Airport received 1,686,938 passengers from international flights last month alone, according to Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste, the firm that operates the airport. In all of 2019, the same company reported 17,477,846 international arrivals, making the airport the second busiest in Mexico. Spring Break makes up one of three “high seasons” for Mexican beach resorts, along with the Christmas break and summer vacation.
That’s also the case for other regions of Mexico, including the state of Oaxaca, where tourism is the number one industry. “As of today, neither the Secretary of Health nor other public or private health institutions have reported confirmed cases of COVID-19,” said Governor Alejandro Murat in his first public address on the subject Thursday night. In his prepared statement, which he read during the inauguration of a luxury hotel, Murat announced the cancellation of a marathon and concert scheduled for the weekend and urged the private sector to refrain from organizing large events.
In contrast Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum drew criticism for refusing to call off the Vive Latino music festival scheduled for March 14-15. The annual concert event draws around 150,000 attendees. Deputy Secretary of Public Health Hugo Lopez Gatell-Ramírez says the decision on whether or not to cancel large events and restrict gatherings comes after a careful cost-benefit analysis of the economic consequences. “If these consequences weren’t there,” he said “the best thing to do from the standpoint of public health protection would be plain and simple to cancel events, but it’s very clear that this brings consequences.”
As of Friday evening, Mexico has 26 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Health authorities, who now give briefings every evening, say so far these cases remain traceable to people who have either spent time abroad in countries with active contagions or people who have come into contact with them in Mexico.
Lopez Gatell-Ramírez says the ability to trace infections to their international origin is a factor in deciding to continue activities that keep the economy afloat. In his Friday evening press conference, Lopez Gatell-Ramírez said what’s most worrisome “are the consequences on small economies, family economies, because in these economies there are workers who can lose their wages, their jobs, their fees and significantly affect their individual and family economies.” He insisted economics are not being prioritized over health, but rather Mexico has yet to reach the community contagion stage that would require more severe preventative measures.
While the low infection rate may seem inviting in the context of deeply discounted airfare, a falling peso, and extended Spring Break vacations, it’s less than reassuring for locals. Other nations in the hemisphere have taken dramatic steps to restrict entry to international travelers from infected countries and implement screening and quarantine measures. Mexico’s policy, according to the International Air Transport Association, consists of a single sentence fragment published on March 5th: “Heightened screening at airports.” Travelers posting to online boards have reported lax to non-existent screening at Mexican airports.
In parts of Canada, local governments have advised against all non-essential travel, requiring travelers returning from abroad to self-quarantine for at least 14 days. But in the US, the Trump Administration has taken a more hands-off approach, leaving it up to the individual.
That Mexican government officials have put more visible effort into soothing the concerns of those who can afford to fly into the country to stay at all-inclusive beach resorts than in implementing measures to prevent the importation of the virus underscores who would bear the brunt of the risk in the event of an outbreak. This leaves workers in the airline and hospitality industries on the frontlines of close contact with individuals arriving from countries with active COVID-19 infections.
Most of Mexico’s specialized hospitals are concentrated in the nation’s capital, far from the beaches and colonial cities high up on a visitor’s bucket list. The specialized care options that do exist in some tourist hubs, like Cancun for example, are out of the financial reach of the hospitality workers who would be at greatest risk of infection.
Cancun native Uribe says viewing the pandemic through the lens of potential negative impacts on the tourism industry ignores “who is affected and how they’re affected and whose lives are expendable and why.” Hospitality workers have their own families who could be at risk when travelers import a highly contagious disease. Uribe adds, “this is a good time to reassess how the dynamics work and how they can end up costing people their lives.”
Shannon Young is an independent journalist based in Oaxaca, Mexico. Follow her tweets at @SYoungReports.