Cancun, Mexico's main tourist destination

Although it is in a critical stage because of the coronavirus, Cancun tourism began its gradual reopening in the hope of regaining the confidence of visitors.

Never could Cancun have imagined that, 50 years after it was created from scratch as a city designed by and for tourism, it would celebrate its anniversary with its idyllic deserted beaches.

In the famous Mexican tourist destination, distinguished for being the one that receives more international travelers in Latin America, its giant hotels and nightclubs closed and its normally crowded streets have been empty for nearly three months due to the arrival of the Covid-19.

Only the local population remained, the same that almost all of them live -directly or indirectly- from the tourism that one day stopped coming and that already caused hundreds of millions of dollars of losses in the area.

Assuming a high summer season that is practically ruined, the authorities are trying to recover at least part of the activity for the rest of the year and are struggling to attract visitors again.

To this end, and despite the fact that Mexico is still in the phase of maximum risk of coronavirus transmission according to the government, Cancun and the Mexican Caribbean became on Monday one of the first major tourist destinations in the region to partially open hotels and services to travelers.

Aware of the mistrust that many people still have to travel in this phase of the pandemic, the businessmen assure that they will comply with all the protocols to guarantee the health of workers and customers in this return of tourism that, they know, will be slow and gradual in the remainder of the year.

Millionaire losses

Tourism is a fundamental sector in the entire state of Quintana Roo, where in addition to Cancun you can find the well-known Riviera Maya with famous destinations such as Tulum or Playa del Carmen.

Last year, for example, 25 million people arrived at the Cancun airport. Sixty-five percent came from outside Mexico, with the United States and Canada as the main points of origin of travelers.

Its 35,000 hotel rooms usually have an average occupancy rate of around 80%, although by last April the city was expected to be completely full. But the arrival of the pandemic has put an end to the most optimistic estimates.

According to data from the municipality of Benito Juárez to which it belongs, since the beginning of the crisis in Cancun ten million people have been lost to the air. In April, its airport suffered a drastic drop in operations of 97%.

From 100% hotel occupancy to 2 or 3%, due only to the presence of personnel carrying out essential activities or tourists who were stranded without being able to return to their countries due to flight cancellations and border closures.

And the economic impact of this disaster is difficult to quantify. By the end of April, municipal authorities estimate losses of some $500 million. Without counting the data from May, they estimate that they amounted to a total of $1 billion.

But despite the reopening, the losses will continue for the rest of the year. Of the $15 billion earned in 2019 in Quintana Roo, the state Tourism Ministry predicts losses of 32% by the end of December. That is, about $5 billion for the entire state.

One in ten jobs lost in Mexico

And, as was to be expected in the face of this loss of income, thousands of people were also left without work in the absence of tourists in hotels, resorts, bars, or restaurants.

But the bleeding in Cancun is especially dramatic. With 91,000 jobs lost, it means that the city accounts for one in ten of the 900,000 jobs that, according to the central government, disappeared nationwide since the beginning of the pandemic.

The Secretary of Tourism of Quintana Roo emphasizes that more than 400,000 jobs were maintained throughout the state thanks to the commitment made to closed business owners to keep their workers on the payroll.

87% of the GDP in the state is in the service sector and most of it is tourism, so if employment is neglected there could be a serious social crisis with households without any income.

Partial reopening for tourists

Faced with this collapse of the local economy, the authorities of Quintana Roo decided to partially reopen as of Monday the hotels and tourist services. Although almost all the rest of Mexico remains virtually closed except for those considered essential services, since June 1 are the states that have the ability to adapt the conditions of the return to "new normal".

In the case of Quintana Roo, it was authorized the gradual opening of sectors related to tourism according to their degree of risk to possible contagion of Covid-19.

Thus, as of this Monday, hotels, restaurants, and shops in Cancun and the Riviera Maya can open at 30% of their capacity. The beaches remain closed until the next phase, which will be reviewed weekly.

And although the WHO warned last week of the risk of reopening economies too quickly in Latin America due to risks of COVID-19 outbreaks, state authorities assure that all measures will be taken to prevent that from happening.

As an example, 4,400 companies throughout Quintana Roo were certified on their compliance with health safety actions before restarting their activities. In addition, Cancun and the Mexican Caribbean were the first destinations in the Americas to receive the Global Security Seal awarded by the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Infrared thermometer, entrance mats, signs, cleaning paper, antibacterial gel everywhere, buying twice as many chemicals or three times as many cleaning papers because everything is cleaned more regularly.

Many have questioned whether this is the time to start reopening the tourism industry in the area, considering that in the last week 3,700 deaths from COVID-19 were still reported in Mexico (although many of them were confirmed these days but correspond to earlier dates).

Forecast at 50%

Despite the reopening, many tourists are still hesitant to travel for fear of contagion and others are still unable to do so until the airlines resume their flights to Cancun. Their potential customers in these first months will be domestic tourists, based on studies that say that in the current crisis tourists do not want to travel more than four hours by plane or four or five hours by road.

Given this scenario, reaching 30% occupancy in the summer would be an acceptable figure. And normally at year-end, it is 100%, but to do it this time with 50% would be wonderful. The next few months will not be easy for Cancun to regain its title as the preferred Latin American destination for international visitors.

The arrival of large quantities of sargassum to its shores or the damage caused by Tropical Storm Cristobal to parts of the state in recent days will not help either.

No doubt, it is the biggest challenge in its history, but Cancun is only 50 years old and something characteristic of being so recent is that its society is flexible, has a very resilient culture accustomed to complex situations such as hurricanes.

In fact, it's only been five decades since construction began on virgin beaches without any nearby population where the government decided to create its main bet on tourism as an alternative source of foreign exchange to oil, then in crisis.

Soon, many people came from other places to work and try their luck in Cancun. It was like the U.S. gold rush. Thousands of people settled there and helped make it what it is today.

For now, the celebration of half a century of "the jewel of the Mexican Caribbean" scheduled for April will have to wait until it shines again as before.