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2020 was a disastrous year for tourism. But with some exceptions: in the midst of the pandemic, Mexico ranks third among the world's most visited countries, after Italy and France.
Since December, planes have been taking off and landing at Cancun International Airport every five minutes. It is high season in the Mexican seaside resort on the Caribbean coast. Lufthansa expanded its schedule and added the Mexican tourist hotspot in October — despite COVID-19.
Tourists from Europe and North America are flocking to the beaches and standing in line to admire the Mayan pyramids. Hotel and restaurant owners are relieved. It seems the pull of a sandy beach is enough to eclipse alarming press reports about crowded intensive care units and rising infections in Mexico, where 174,000 people have died from COVID-19 so far. According to the latest preliminary statistics from the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Mexico was Latin America's most visited destination in 2020, moving up to third place worldwide, after Italy and France.
The reasons for this are manifold. Mexico never closed its borders and is still one of the few countries in the world that does not require a negative PCR test upon entry. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has ruled out lockdowns, instead putting the economy first. Another reason is the fact that Mexican migrants came home to visit their families at Christmas time.
But the UNWTO statistics don't necessarily tell the whole story. Michael Hallé is the Canadian co-founder of the 10Gates Matrix Inc. consulting firm, which specializes in travel data. He's been advising authorities and entrepreneurs in the industry in Mexico for 30 years, and told DW that they also "included the pre-pandemic months of January to March 2020 that count as high season in Mexico."
Despite ranking third in the UNWTO statistics, the slump was marked in Mexico, too. According to the Inegi statistics institute, 2020 saw almost 48% fewer visitors and 55% less foreign exchange revenue compared to the previous year. The fact that the sector survived is remarkable — unlike in Germany, there were no subsidies for foundering airlines and tour operators. In fact the Mexican government closed down the national tourism marketing agency shortly before the pandemic to save money.
But as Hallé explains, regional authorities and tourism associations have stepped into the breach. "As early as summer 2020, hotels on the Caribbean coast had certified hygiene concepts, the likes of which we don't even have in Canada," he said, adding that gave travelers confidence. Face masks are a requirement in the state of Quintana Roo, where Cancun is located — just a three- to four-hour flight away for Canadians and US citizens, which means the risk of contracting COVID-19 on a flight is lower. According to UNWTO, the majority of foreign visitors came from these two countries.
Many doctors consider the opening risky and blame tourism for the rise in infections in vacation destinations. Official statistics showed rising numbers in February, but infections were still fewer than in the hotspots around Mexico City and in central Mexico.
Domestic tourism was another decisive factor, a lucrative market in a country with 127 million inhabitants. Mexican visitors helped cushion the slump in international business.
Meinolf Koessmeier runs the Mexico Adventures agency in Cuernavaca that organizes motorcycle tours for Mexicans in Europe. In 2020, his business survived because he offered local tours. He hopes business will return to normal in 2022.
"There's a lot of interest in nature-based vacations," he said, adding that motorcycle manufacturers all over the world enjoyed record sales in 2020, and buyers were now just waiting for an opportunity to hit the road.
Hallé agreed that consumers are feeling a travel itch and said the survey showed that Americans, in particular, were optimistic again and "hoping to travel in the next 6 months thanks to vaccinations."
All the same, the sector is unlikely to see a quick recovery. Canada and the US have just imposed stricter travel requirements on returnees due to the new virus mutations, including negative PCR tests and stricter quarantine regulations. In response, major Mexican airports immediately offered PCR testing modules, and even some hotels are providing the service.
According to Hallé, the pandemic is a chance for Mexico to offer more sustainable tourism. Mass check-ins and city trips are out of the question in the medium term, he said — and countries like Mexico, with its vast countryside and natural beauty, may very well benefit in a post-COVID world.