We’ve heard stories throughout the COVID pandemic of American travelers wading in nearly empty pools in Puerto Vallarta and enjoying rare stretches of solitude at major resorts in Cancun and Los Cabos that are only at 30 percent capacity. We’ve seen tales on social media of travelers at Mexico resorts experiencing socially distanced buffets. Gibran Chapur, vice president of the Palace resort chain, said his company welcomed about 300 tourists on the first day the hotels reopened in June—and 70 percent of the guests were from the United States.
Despite global bans on travel and ongoing border closures, travel between the United States and Mexico has continued relatively unchecked through 2020. A ban on nonessential land travel across the border between the two countries went into effect on March 21, 2020, and continues to get extended—the latest deadline to reopen the U.S.-Mexico border was pushed to May 21, 2021. (How exactly nonessential travel is defined is problematic in and of itself—in short, there is no set-in-stone definition.)
So with the ban, how are Americans getting to Cancun, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta? Are they all rule-breaking desperados? Hardly.
Air travel has been allowed (if not severely limited), and conversations with hoteliers and tourism reps from Los Cabos to Quintana Roo reveal that U.S. travelers still comprise a majority of the guests. “Our domestic market is the United States,” said Rodrigo Esponda, managing director of the Los Cabos Tourism Board, on a call in mid-December. Some 80 percent of guests usually come from America, he noted, and Los Cabos had recovered 80 percent of all travel activity since reopening.
In November, more than half a million Americans visited Mexico, according to The New York Times. By November 18, Mexico had just over 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 99,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. The country then experienced record highs in December, confirming 1,401,529 positive cases of COVID-19 on December 29.
The United States experienced a major spike in cases after the holiday travel season. On January 4, the U.S. had recorded 20,636,600 coronavirus cases (up from 11 million in November) and 351,580 deaths, Johns Hopkins University reported. As the numbers fluctuate in both countries, citizens have been encouraged to stay home. The CDC explicitly advises against all travel to Mexico right now.
Given the mixed messages—travel to Mexico has been allowed, then encouraged (to support local businesses), then discouraged as the crisis escalated—it can be hard to decipher the rules and restrictions. We worked with our peers at Travesías Media, a top magazine, book, and city guide publisher in Mexico, to find out what the Mexican government is telling its people and to compare that to what we’re hearing in the United States. Let’s break it down.
What the governments say about Mexico travel restrictions
Travel to Mexico, According to the U.S.
“The United States will temporarily limit inbound land border crossings from Canada and Mexico to ‘essential travel.’ This action does not prevent U.S. citizens from returning home. These restrictions are temporary and went into effect on March 21, 2020. They will remain in effect through 11:59 p.m. on April 21, 2021. This decision has been coordinated with the Governments of Mexico and Canada.” —U.S. Embassy in Mexico
Translation: Technically, air travel has been allowed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, along with train and sea travel; driving across the border, commuter rail, and ferry travel have been prohibited. International flights have still been arriving in popular tourist states such as Quintana Roo (albeit on a limited schedule and some nearly empty).
The U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Mexico confirm that U.S. citizens can enter Mexico; they do not need to show a negative COVID-19 test result or quarantine on arrival. (The website for the embassy is regularly updated with entry and exit information.) Upon arrival in Mexico, travelers face health screenings like temperature checks—Cancun’s airport has thermographic cameras that register travelers with fevers (you might not even notice they’re taking your temperature).
Travel to Mexico, According to Mexico
Per Travesías, “Mexico’s federal government has never closed its borders despite COVID-19. In fact, it’s one of the few countries that currently welcomes travelers from all over the world, without any kind of restriction or mandatory quarantine upon arrival.” Some states in Mexico have called on their federal government to tighten border restrictions as the U.S. case count has risen, reports the Washington Post.
Mexico’s states have each had different phased reopenings, depending on the number of cases and hospital occupation, among other metrics. On June 1, the government introduced a national “stoplight” system to phase in the return of nonessential activities. Red states are essentially in lockdown, with just essential activities allowed; oranges states allow restaurants, hotels, and stores to open with limited capacity. Daily updates are posted here.
What we’re hearing from hotels in Mexico
When hotels started reopening in Mexico, capacity was capped at 30 percent occupancy to avoid overcrowding. Before the pandemic, occupancy rates of 85 percent were not uncommon. As in the United States, many resorts are welcoming domestic travelers who are staying close to home. At Chablé Yucatan, the majority of guests are national—“This is normal, nothing new,” says general manager Rocco Bova. “Our market was always Mexico, now just slightly higher. We also got some people from the U.S., including guests flying private.”
In interviews with two Leading Hotels of the World properties, Travesias confirmed that hotels have reopened with new safety protocols and global sanitation standards—and that Americans are most definitely visiting. At Nobu Hotel Los Cabos, which opened its doors on July 1, Americans (mostly from California) were the bulk of reservations, says sales director Sofía De la Rosa. Meanwhile, the Chablé Maroma on the Riviera Maya, which reopened on June 8, has seen “50/50 national and American guests,” says general manager Gerardo Ortiz. “We tend to have a lot of American guests, but surprisingly, we have experienced an increase in Mexican travelers—especially honeymooners that needed a sudden change of plans due to COVID-19.”
Ortiz added: “Since the U.S. government has recommended avoiding all nonessential international travel due to COVID-19, many American guests have asked us if they are allowed to enter the country. The answer has always been yes. When arriving into Cancun’s International Airport, they will probably be asked about any current symptoms or other travels in the past 15 days and that’s it. Another question we’ve been asked is whether the beach is open or not. Fortunately, due to our location and privacy, the beach is open and ready to welcome travelers.”
Thanks to a mask mandate and required safety certification for businesses to reopen, Los Cabos has been attracting travelers “interested in relaxing in a controlled, stable environement,” said Rodrigo Esponda of the Los Cabos Tourism Board. “People are spending more and staying longer.”
So . . . what should you do?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises against traveling to areas where transmission levels are high. Please be sure to check the CDC’s latest guidance for traveling, including wearing a face mask in public settings. Do not travel if you are sick or have likely been exposed to COVID-19, the agency reminds would-be travelers.
The Associated Press contributed reporting. This story originally appeared on August 14, 2020, and was updated on September 15, November 18, 2020, January 4, 2021, and April 1, 2021 to include current information.
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