Morning Buzz

Spring Break in Mexico?

Tracy L. Barnett
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Michael Caplan, Diane Caplan

CARIBBEAN BLUE Michael Caplan and wife Diane relocated to Tulum during the pandemic and are telecommuting to their businesses in Houston.

Spring Break is around the corner, and with Covid numbers still high in both the US and Mexico, the CDC is recommending that people stay home and sit this one out. 

“U.S. citizens should reconsider spring break and other nonessential travel to Mexico due to Covid-19,” the U.S. Embassy said on its website. “Cases and hospitalizations remain high in most of Mexico. Consular services, like appointments for emergency passports, are limited in many locations due to the pandemic … “

Many people are choosing to follow that advice; some colleges, in fact, have canceled Spring Break entirely, or reduced it to a three-day weekend, like Texas A&M. Others, however, are determined to travel, and with Europe closing its doors to US travelers, many are still planning to head to Mexico. Despite the pandemic and a US government warning against all travel to Mexico, instead of steering clear, the number of American visitors to Quintana Roo, where popular destinations such as Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum are located, increased 23% in 2020 compared to 2019.

Depending on your orientation, it’s either a terrible time for international travel, and deeply irresponsible; or possible to do so with careful observation of the protocols, and necessary for mental health. 

Since our last story on the subject last November, new requirements were signed into law by the incoming Biden administration that require all travelers entering the US from Mexico to present a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of their flight. Additionally, the CDC recommends that travelers self-quarantine for seven days after travel. 

The new guidelines prompted concern in the tourism industry, with headlines like this one from Mexico News Daily: “US quarantine requirement seen as new blow to tourism and airline travel,” which came out on Jan. 25, shortly after the executive order was signed. Doctors were quoted expressing concern that Mexico’s supply of Covid tests would fall short under a strong surge of international travelers. Mexican tourism experts disagreed, however, saying that the hotel sector is abundantly prepared, with ample test kits available for what is sure to be a reduced population compared to the normal Spring Break. 

“That is not a problem; it is fully covered. Some hotels have even installed laboratories within their own facilities, and include the Covid test in their rate,” said Margarita Carvajal, national representative of the Federation of Tourism Businesspeople (FETUR), in a telephone interview from her home in Cozumel. “The hotels in most of the destinations in Quintana Roo are shielded; the health security protocols are first class. Quintana Roo until 2019 received 22 million tourists per year. It has capacity now to spare.”

Marketing consultant Diane Caplan, a Buzz resident who together with husband Michael recently built a home in Tulum, offered her perspectives from her jungle home. She has a message for travelers who choose to come: Welcome, but please observe the protocols. If not for yourself and your loved ones, for the people you will leave behind. 

“If you’re coming here to party, this is not the time,” she said. “If you’re going to come down to chill and hang out on the beach, where you’re out in the open, just wash your hands religiously, wear a mask and distance, and you’re going to be fine. Just make sure you go to restaurants with outdoor seating, which most of them are.”

A surge of cases infected the Riviera Maya in January and early February, which the state government attributed to national and international tourists coming down over the holidays. That said, the numbers are still far lower than in Houston, said Caplan, who travels to Houston periodically to meet with clients. “I’m more worried about catching it in Houston than here.”

Flying remains the greatest risk in international travel, with no guarantee against packed flights that make distancing impossible. But airlines are gearing up for Spring Break by adding flights; three airlines are adding new international routes to Cancun and Cozumel. Most importantly for Houstonians, Southwest Airlines will begin daily flights between Houston and Cozumel on March 11.

Diane and Michael have not seen much impact on their daily lives, however. They continue to keep to themselves, socializing just with their closest friends and neighbors and at a distance, ordering takeout and occasionally eating at their favorite restaurants that have outdoor seating. 

She appreciates the measures that local businesses are taking to keep people safe – hand gel at the ready, taking temperatures at the door of most establishments, distancing requirements and 30% occupation rates to prevent crowding. Bars and nightclubs have been closed throughout the state and much of the country.

But she has been bothered by the laxness of international tourists who come to Tulum and go around apparently oblivious to the regulations, failing to distance or wear a mask. 

“I wish they would come down harder on the tourists,” she said. “I understand that it’s kind of a Catch-22. You want people to come visit because we rely on tourism here, but at the same time, you worry about the safety of the people who live here.”

Tulum has been cracking down lately, she said, closing down a couple of restaurants for breaking the capacity rules.

Carvajal clarified that Tulum is a special case because of the age profile of its tourism market, which averages in the 20s – younger than for Cancún or Playa del Carmen, which tend to have a better compliance rate with the protocols. 

And while the Mexican government has come under serious criticism for, like the prior US government, failing to be proactive in stemming the Covid tide, the tourism sector has been highly proactive, Carvajal said. Indeed, she said, the Riviera Maya is one of the best prepared places in the world to reactivate tourism in a pandemic because of its long track record of receiving large numbers of tourists. 

Editor’s note: Buzz travel columnist Tracy L. Barnett is a Lowell Thomas travel journalism award winner and longtime travel and environmental writer. Email her at [email protected] to share your own travel tales.


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