Should travellers avoid Mexico as Delta variant surges? For locals who need tourism, it's complicated
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By Natalie B Comptom
With many of the world's borders closed or heavily restricted, Mexico has remained one of the most popular destinations for Americans throughout the pandemic thanks to its low barrier of entry. Flights are often affordable, and coronavirus protocols have been manageable.
Destinations like Cancún, San Jose del Cabo and Mexico City are routinely the most booked international trips for U.S. travellers, and Cancún International Airport reported it exceeded pre-pandemic aerial traffic this summer.
Whether that's a good thing depends on who you ask.
While vaccinations are becoming more available in Mexico, around 26% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to University of Oxford's Our World in Data. As in the United States, Mexico is experiencing a rise in cases, reporting more than half a million new infections in August. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a "Level 3" warning for Mexico, stating only fully vaccinated people should consider travel there. The CDC has the same warning for popular tourist destinations such as Italy, Croatia and Jamaica.
So should Americans avoid travel to Mexico - to protect both themselves and locals? The answer from many locals is more nuanced than a simple yes or no.
Samantha Martinez, a marketing and commercial director for Hospital Multimédica Norte, located just north of Mexico City, has felt frustrated by Mexico's loose entry requirements for international visitors compared to those of other countries. Americans do not need to show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test upon arrival - just a health declaration form.
She said she thinks that is part of why Mexico has become such a popular tourist destination during the pandemic, not only for Americans but also visitors from other parts of the world. However, Martinez doesn't believe those tourists are aware of the reality of the country's coronavirus battle.
"A couple of weeks ago, we registered the highest peak in the pandemic with more than 24,000 cases per day," she said. "So the situation in Mexico is not getting any better regarding Covid."
Martinez recognises the impact of the pandemic on tourism, and tourism's impact on Mexico. She also understands the need for people to travel. When people ask her if it's okay to visit Mexico, "My answer depends 100 percent on the responsibility of the tourist," she said. "You need to be conscious. You need to be responsible. . . . If you are willing to travel, I think it's a great idea only if you agree to respect and follow local requirements."
Fabiola Santiago, who runs mezcal tastings in Santiago Matatlán in Oaxaca, agrees. As someone who splits her time between California and Mexico, she doesn't want to be hypocritical and tell tourists to stay away, but she also knows that tourism can put local populations at risk.
Santiago recommends visitors follow masking requirements strictly, particularly if they're visiting remote communities with limited access to health-care.
For Vicente Reyes, a Oaxaca native and president of social impact collective Hermano Maguey, which works on promoting an equitable agave ecosystem in the region, if visitors fully vaccinated and get a coronavirus test before their trip, "I would be happy for people to come to Mexico," he said. "It's for their own health; they need to know if they have it or not."
He added: "I think that's the most responsible for yourself and other people."
From a travel industry perspective, Americans are welcome to visit Mexico at this time.
"We live and breathe tourism," said Rodrigo Esponda, the head of the tourism board of Los Cabos, where Americans make up 80% of visitors. "It's the only economic engine in the destination."
Esponda said the delta variant surge hasn't yet affected the region's tourism outlook, and so far this year, visitor numbers have been strong. In July, the Los Cabos region received 25% more visitors than in July 2019. The September bookings project the region will outpace 2019 numbers by 20%.
Carmen Joaquin, president of the Cozumel Business Owners Union, said that because the island relies on cruise visitors, businesses are suffering from reduced tourism numbers, despite having more flights to the island than ever before. Instead of five or six ships a day, the island is getting five or six a week.
"There's still less income . . . we used to have 20,000 people coming over in a day," Joaquin said. "We haven't been like this for 30 years when cruise ships started booming here."
In Los Cabos and Cozumel, as well as in many other tourist destinations, there is a push to get the hospitality workforce vaccinated, a move that not only protects employees, but also serves as a selling point for coronavirus-concerned guests.
Hotels in Mexico have been invested in getting staff immunised, as well.
Travellers to Mexico should look into the health protocols at any accommodation before booking.