An irony of the coronavirus pandemic is that the idyllic beach vacation in Mexico in the brochures really does exist now: The white sand beaches are sparkling çlean and empty on the Caribbean coast, the water is clear on the Pacific coast and the waters around the resort of Los Cabos are teeming with fish after 10 weeks with no boats going out. There are two-for-one deals and very eager staff.
It’s all only an airline flight — and a taxi ride, and a reception desk — away, and that’s the problem.
There are a number of ways to think about it: Might it be safer to travel than stay home? How much is mental health worth, and, if people are going to socially distance anyway, why not do it in a beautiful, isolated place?
On the other hand, despite the pandemic, flights are often crowded, even hotels in Mexico that bend over backward to disinfect everything have little capacity to actually test their employees, and while fellow guests are likely to be few and far between, they also probably won't be wearing masks.
It was all on display as the first excited tourists arrived at the Moon Palace beach resort near Cancun last week, to the sound of mariachis and welcoming employees lined up — at a safe distance — to greet them.
“The customers all took off their masks as soon as they came into the hotel,” said Gibran Chapur, vice president of Palace Resorts. “You can't be all covered up when you are on vacation, thinking you have to be in reclusion. If you wanted to do that, you would have stayed home.”
The Moon Palace staff, however, kept their face masks on. With only about 300 tourists on beaches that can hold thousands, it seemed a good place to practice social distancing.
“What better place to be than someplace where there is nobody, as opposed to being in New York, where there are 500 people everywhere you look,” Chapur said.
In Quintana Roo state, where Cancun is located, tourism is the only industry there is, and Cancun is the only major Mexican resort to reopen so far. Mexico's tourism income crashed in April, when it was only 6.3% of what it was one year ago. Hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms were closed.
Tourism provides 11 million jobs, directly or indirectly in Mexico, and many of those workers were simply sent home to wait it out.
The situation is so desperate that Mexico's tourism secretary proposed making the industry one of Mexico's “essential activities,” so that it could reopen just as the construction, mining and automotive industries have already started to do. But federal health officials were less enthusiastic, noting that tourism implied travel, crowds and being outdoors.
The delay in reopening anywhere else but Cancun has created a desperate situation. At the Pacific coast resort of Huatulco, dozens of vendors who run seaside fish and curios shacks defied lockdown measures to reopen their businesses, saying their money had run out and they couldn't take it anymore.
Other beach resorts are drawing up plans for limited reopenings as early as next week.
"It has been very difficult," said Armida Castro, the mayor of the twin Baja California resorts of Los Cabos,
“We had a list of needy people, elderly people and disabled people” to whom the government distributed aid packages, she said.
But then beach vendors, waiters and musicians who had lost work were added and the list swelled to 50,000; and the local government increased food packages and all available official vehicles were recruited for distribution.
Castro said she can't remember seeing Los Cabos, known for its beaches, deserts and sport fishing, so deserted. The normally bustling marina at Cabo San Lucas now has plenty of room.
While Los Cabos hopes for a soft reopening in June or July, with limits on hotel capacity, it's hard not to look at this as a lost summer.
“October will be the big test,” Castro said, referring to the month when cruise ships traditionally return and sport fishing tourneys host around 350 boats angling for marlin or dorado. The fish are definitely biting, Castro said, noting: “It has been nine weeks now without any sport or commercial fishing, so that should be attractive and interesting for sportsmen and fishermen.”
The attractions at Mexican resorts are better than ever, and it's not just due to less crowding.
Navy Secretary Adm. José Ojeda Durán said that sargassum — the ill-smelling seaweed that choked Mexico's Caribbean beaches in 2018 and 2019 — has been largely absent so far this year.
And on the Pacific coast, bioluminescence — the electric glow of the ocean at night due to tiny plankton — has appeared for the first time in memory on the beaches of Acapulco. Experts say a combination of factors — fewer people in the water, less pollution from boats and sunblock, and fewer bright lights along the seashore — may account for the sea glow.
“The very minimal presence, or absence, of human activity has allowed this phenomenon to appear where it has seldom been seen,”said marine biologist David Hernández Becerril of Mexico's National Autonomous University.
Still, it’s going to be difficult for Mexico. Some places like the island of Cozumel are almost entirely reliant on the cruise industry, which may take more time to recover. And Mexico is not exactly known for what the U.N. World Tourism Organization recommends: “Safe, seamless and touchless travel.”
Some things are going to change: Passengers won't be allowed to sit up front with the taxi driver, buffets are a thing of the past and Chapur says Palace resorts will probably do away with physical menus at restaurants. Instead, patrons will snap a picture of the QR code at the restaurant and the menu will pop up on their smartphones. “Menus are probably the dirtiest things in a hotel. Everybody touches them,” Chapur said.
But perhaps the most convincing argument is the simplest one.
“I asked people, ‘What made you come?’ and they said: 'I couldn't stand being in my house anymore,'” Chapur said.