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Mexico’s Tourism Industry Gets Ready — And Anxious — To Fight The Pandemic

Tourism is one of the main sources of income in Mexico, which is the most popular destination for U.S. travelers. But the pandemic has imperiled tourism there.

And the Mexican tourism industry is trying to revive its once vibrant tourism sector. 

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Under Recovery

Mexico is, by far, the most popular destination for U.S. tourists traveling abroad — and Americans are the main source of foreign tourism in Mexico. 

But the country’s tourism industry is struggling as it adapts to the pandemic’s “new normal.” 

Before the pandemic, the main square of Valle de Bravo would have plenty of visitors at dusk. But now, the square of this tourism-driven town in central Mexico is closed — and only birds are back.

“We worry about asymptomatic guests, but the main concern all over town is the lack of visitors," said Juan García, manager of the Puesta del Sol hotel, a few blocks away. 

Since mid-July, the government is allowing hotels to operate only up to 30% of their capacity, following strict sanitizing rules and hygiene protocols. 

“The state government has supported tourism businesses by temporarily eliminating the occupancy tax," García said.

But many people, like artisans or boat drivers, depend on the money out of the tourists’ pockets. And the ones arriving are not enough, while some recreational activities are still closed due to the pandemic.

“We understand President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s policy of favoring the poor, but of course it’s also concerning what many honest business owners will do," García said.

The federal government requires companies to keep paying workers, and García says this is becoming a real struggle, particularly as they compete with less regulated services, like AirBnB.

Ready To Fight Back

Roberto Zapata is the tourism vice president of Mexico’s National Chamber of Commerce. He says their economic expectation for 2020 is much lower compared to last year.

“We are going to be reaching, at the most, 45%,” Zapata said.

According to Zapata, 9% of Mexico’s GDP comes from the tourism sector, but it has been losing around $180 million per day since the pandemic, with 1 million jobs at risk. 

“We have 10 million people that are employees in tourism," he said.

Zapata said some of the government’s financial institutions have provided credits that are insufficient and with high interests. Zapata says some local authorities have been supportive, but not the federal government.

“So, yeah, we’re just doing everything by ourselves," Zapata expressed.

Last year, the López Obrador administration disbanded ProMexico, the agency to promote tourism internationally. Zapata says that has also worsened the situation, but the industry has developed world-class standards, ready to expect more visitors regardless of the authorities.

“We’re completely prepared to receive the people, we’re very concerned, we have learned our lesson, in terms that we’re providing a better service," Zapata stated.

Solidarity and Hope

“When it pours, it rains," President López Obrador said, as he visited the Mayan Riviera after the hit of Hurricane Delta. But he said tourism is going up, forecasting that things will go back to normal by the end of the year.

And in Cancún, many worked for days to clear the damages left by the hurricane.

“Problems really started two years ago with the expansion of organized crime and a seaweed plague," said Laura Orrostieta, owner of Cancún Transfers and Tours, a private land transportation company in the Mayan Riviera.

But she says things started to look much better by the end of last year — until the pandemic struck.

“Without tourists, this place is dead," she said. 

But Orrostieta notices the continuous, yet slight return of visitors, particularly from the rest of Mexico and the U.S. That makes her optimistic despite being disappointed by the federal government. 

“It’s a moment for bringing solidarity," the entrepreneur said. 

She said she knows of many people who’ve been affected, including COVID-19 victims who died. Others have had to close their businesses or start something new to survive. But she says everyone is following the sanitary rules, because everyone needs to start over again.

And she says the best way to help the industry and her country is by traveling, while staying safe.

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Arizona Tourists Flock To Sonoran Destinations

As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, many people are looking for safe ways to get out of the house. That’s been a boon in recent months for Rocky Point, a beach town in neighboring Sonora, Mexico known for its popularity among Arizonans. And some Sonoran leaders hope that trend will spread to other parts of the state, too.

Music rumbled across a crowded beach in Puerto Peñasco, or Rocky Point, where Hunter Spanier and a few friends spent a weekend in early October.

“There were so many people,” said Spanier, 19. “Just tents and tents and tents. It was packed.

Despite crowds, and the ongoing pandemic, Spanier says it was worth the trip from her home in Tempe — with days full of great food, banana-boat rides and shopping.

“I had the best time of my life. It was amazing,” she said. “It’s a rough time for everyone. And I think as long as you’re being safe, it’s OK to find happiness. And it’s OK if that happiness is across the border.”

And she’s not the only one. In recent months, Arizona tourists have flocked across the border to Puerto Peñasco, known by some as “Arizona’s beach.”

“Fabulous! That’s the word,” Rocky Point Visitors and Conventions Office President Héctor Vázquez said, thrilled with the uptick in visitors. “Everything is going really well.”

He said 80% of Rocky Point’s economy depends on tourism. So when the city locked down earlier this year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus — during what should have been its high season — it was economically devastating.

But now, things are starting to look up.

“But in September, look, it’s so interesting, in the month of September, now that beaches are open, we surpassed the number of visitors compared to last year,” he said.

That’s even with the city’s continued safety protocols, including a curfew, mask mandate and limited capacity at hotels, restaurants and other public spaces. As well as travel restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border that have been in place for nearly seven months.

But Rocky Point Mayor Kiko Munro says those restrictions haven’t impeded southbound travelers.

“It hasn’t had that big of an impact on us because people are allowed to come freely, because there are no restrictions on the Mexican side. And going back to the U.S., there are standard procedures by (U.S. Customs and Border Protection), but there are, again, no conditions for you as a U.S. citizen to get back to your homeland,” he said.

Munro means that while technically non-essential travel like tourism is barred on both sides of the border, Mexican officials are not enforcing those rules. And northbound restrictions have meant little to many Arizona travelers, because the return of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents is considered essential regardless of what brought them to Mexico.

That’s frustrated some U.S. officials, who say tourists could be spreading the coronavirus.

But Munro said Rocky Point has taken measures that prioritize both health and tourism.

“We are demonstrating that you can actually live with an economy being active and health situations being controlled,” he said.

So far, Rocky Point has had relatively low numbers of reported coronavirus cases and deaths. According to the most recent data, published Wednesday, Oct. 14, there were 242 confirmed coronavirus cases and 33 deaths in Puerto Peñasco. And Munro hopes if the spread of the coronavirus remains low, Rocky Point will continue to attract Arizonans seeking safe ways to travel amid the pandemic.

Statewide Effort

Tourism from Arizona is also a key aspect of Sonora’s economic reactivation efforts, said Sonora Tourism Promotion Coordinator Luis Nuñez.

“We’re working to reestablish tourists’ trust,” he said.

They’re doing that in part, he said, by providing coronavirus safety trainings and supplies to hotels and tourism operators in popular tourist destinations, including beach towns like San Carlos.

Nuñez is optimistic that reticence to fly or travel long distances could not only help the state recoup former levels of tourism from Arizona, but even increase the state’s tourist appeal now and into the future.

“As the pandemic lift and potential visitors are able to travel, we want Sonora to be one of the principal options,” he said. “And when they come back, we’ll be ready.”

He said Rocky Point has been a model of how to safely spur tourism amid the pandemic.

“It really has been an example, at the national level,” he said, citing the city’s use of checkpoints and careful monitoring to ensure safety. “It’s a model we can use in other areas to make sure tourists feel comfortable.”

Sense Of Security

During her visit to Rocky Point, Hunter Spanier said it did feel safe.

“Some places kind of a little bit more than in the states, even,” she said, noting that face coverings, hand sanitizer and temperature checks were ubiquitous at restaurants and public spaces in Rocky Point.

That sense of security makes her want to come back. Though, especially during the pandemic, she said visitors hoping for a Rocky Point getaway should also keep the well-being of local residents in mind when they travel.

“There are people that live here, and it’s not just a playground, it’s somebody’s home,” she said.

Mickey Medina, who owns Rocky Point restaurant Chef Mickey’s Place, said he thinks tourists are respecting the city’s new rules. And he’s glad to have them.

“Puerto Peñasco is pretty much back to normal, I guess,” he said. “We are experiencing lots of tourism, which is great. And things are looking a lot nicer right now than they did a few months ago.

Businesses like his can’t survive without cross-border visitors, he said. Though, that’s not the only challenge right now for communities south of the border right now.

“We are also struggling because we do our grocery shopping over there. A lot of the products that I need come from the states,” he said.

Unlike U.S. citizens, whose travel into Mexico has been basically unhindered by ongoing border restrictions, many Mexican citizens have been cut off from habitual trips to the United States.

Luckily, Medina said, some of his U.S. customers have been doing his shopping for him.

“They say, ‘Hey, I’m heading down this week. You need anything?’ ‘Yes! Butter, please. Heavy cream, gorgonzola cheese.’ Stuff like that that we need,” he said.

He said he hopes border restrictions will lift soon, although he supports measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. And in the meantime he’s just trying to follow safety guidelines to a tee to keep Arizonans coming.

“They can feel safe that when they come to a restaurant in Rocky Point, they’re going to be well taken care of, now more than ever,” he said.

Because everyone knows the tourism bringing life back to Rocky Point right now depends on keeping the pandemic under control.

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Rodrigo Cervantes was KJZZ’s bureau chief in Mexico City from 2016 to 2021.