Mexico sees holiday bump in tourism amid pandemic surge

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Tourists stroll on the shore of Xcalacoco beach in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo state, Mexico, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 202, amid the new coronavirus pandemic. Quintana Roo, the country's tourism crown jewel, home to Cancun, the Riviera Maya and Tulum, received more than 900,000 tourists spanning the end of 2020 and the start of 2021. (AP Photo/Emilio Espejel)

TULUM – 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 winter holiday success could be fleeting, because it came as COVID-19 infections in both Mexico and the United States, 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 would be devastating.

Tourism accounts for 87% of Quintana Roo’s gross domestic product, said state Tourism Secretary Marisol Vanegas Pérez. The state 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 air arrivals and departures per day compared to a pre-pandemic average of 500, Vanegas 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 this 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.