Americans are flocking to Mexico. Should they be?

By Elaine Glusac

Mexico’s reputation as an alluring travel destination both before and during the pandemic has met a sobering reality: Despite growing vaccine efforts, the coronavirus is surging, especially in tourist hot spots.

Though the U.S. land border with Mexico has been closed to nonessential travel since the start of the pandemic, vacationers can fly into the country with no quarantine or testing requirements, opening the door to unvaccinated travelers who might contract the virus in Mexico and bring it back home, or for any traveler to pass it on to a Mexican citizen.

But those risks didn’t deter the more than 2 million Americans who visited Mexico in the first four months of this year. According to Mexican government statistics, they represent 76% of all international visitors arriving by air.

Forward Keys, a service that analyzes flight data, found that air ticketing for U.S. arrivals to Mexico is up nearly 32% in the third quarter of 2021, compared with the same period in 2019.

But infections in Mexico are also up — by about 85% in the first two weeks of July, according to data from the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. In a recent news conference, Hugo López-Gatell, Mexico’s deputy health minister, confirmed a spike in infections that constitutes a third wave in the pandemic and the second in 2021.

Three of the five Mexican states with the highest rates of infection are popular with tourists, including Quintana Roo, home to Cancún and the Riviera Maya; neighboring Yucatán; and Baja California Sur, home to Los Cabos.

The latter leads all others in infection rates, with 47 cases per 100,000 people. The popular resort destination of Los Cabos, at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, accounts for 54% of the active cases in Baja California Sur.

“COVID is substantial down here,” said Jon Gabrielsen, an American living in Los Cabos. “It’s not like the U.S., where they have brought infection rates down to very low numbers with the vaccine. The vaccination rate is not very high here. Fellow Americans should understand they need to mask up.”

Higher infections, lower vaccinations

The recent rise in cases comes as Mexico races to acquire and distribute vaccines. About 16% of the population is fully vaccinated, and 28% of the people have received at least one dose. (This is much lower than the United States, where about 56% of those eligible for the vaccine are fully vaccinated, and 65% have received at least one dose.)

“Understandably, the health minister is talking about a new wave,” said Lin H. Chen, immediate past president of the International Society of Travel Medicine and director of the Mount Auburn Travel Medicine Center, noting that the variants, including the highly infectious Delta variant, have been found in Mexico.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the threat level of the coronavirus in Mexico at Level 3 of 4, or High, and recommended travel only for those who are fully vaccinated. (It also recommends that vaccinated travelers get tested three to five days after they have returned from Mexico.)

“I would feel more comfortable if a destination is in the 60 to 70% vaccination range” before traveling there, Chen said, advising even fully vaccinated travelers to wear face masks indoors, maintain social distancing and dine outdoors.

‘Mexico has made it not very complicated’

Economic pressure prevailed when Mexico reopened last summer without testing or quarantine mandates, hurdles that might have crimped tourism more than it already has — international visitors are down about 45% in the first four months of 2021, according to the Mexican Ministry of Tourism, compared with 2019 — particularly in its tourist hot spots.

In Los Cabos, about 80% of the economy depends on tourism. For the first half of 2021, its tourism figures were off only about 20% compared with the same period in 2019, a relatively healthy figure in a time of scant international travel.

“Mexico has made it not very complicated for us to travel to their country, as far as testing,” said Christen Perry, owner of Classic Travel Connection, a travel agency in Birmingham, Alabama.

It also helps that Mexico is affordable (Americans get nearly 20 Mexican pesos to the dollar) and is a quick flight from many U.S. airports (under three hours from Dallas to Cancún) and that much of its appeal is outdoors.

Red light, green light

Travelers bound for Mexico will find coronavirus precautions dictated by a cautionary stoplight system applied state by state and ranging from red — with maximum restrictions — to green, or fully open. While most of the country is in green, five states — Tamaulipas and Tabasco as well as Baja California Sur, Quintana Roo and Yucatán — are orange, the second highest level.

Under the orange designation, restaurants and hotels are restricted to 50% capacity, markets to 75% capacity, and theaters and museums to 25% capacity, according to the U.S. embassy in Mexico. Mask mandates are in effect in many places.

The three tourist-heavy states say they are strictly abiding by health and safety protocols, including mask mandates, social distancing, curfews and banning of large groups.

In Los Cabos, fireworks for the American Fourth of July holiday were prohibited to prevent people from congregating.

Amy Lytle, owner of House of Travel, a travel agency in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is sending about 100 clients to Mexico this summer. She had one travel adviser in Los Cabos in June when the state went from yellow to orange on the stoplight system and said taxi drivers were rounding up diners at restaurants to get them back to their resorts before the 11 p.m. curfew.

“Most destinations are taking it probably even more seriously than they are here, but it’s also their livelihood, and the last thing they want is for someone to get sick at a resort,” she said.

Still, reports on social media, including packed streets of revelers in Cancún, indicate that some travelers are flouting the rules.

The tourism authority of Quintana Roo responded to an inquiry from The New York Times that the state government conducts random rapid testing in the nightclub area of downtown Cancún and has deployed workers to dispense hand sanitizer and masks.

“What impresses me here is how businesses, bars and restaurants have respected government protocols and, in some cases, exceeded them,” David Saito-Chung, a financial writer based in Los Angeles who has vacationed in San José del Cabo several times since early 2020, wrote in an email.

He estimated local compliance with the mask mandates in the area to be above 80%.

“Tourists here mostly go without a mask,” he added. “So it makes me wonder if the chance of infection through close contact with other visitors is higher.”

Testing to come home

The United States, of course, has its own deterrent in the requirement that all travelers, even fully vaccinated ones, test negative before returning home. Anyone testing positive will be subject to a mandatory quarantine.

Tourism authorities said the positive rate has been low.

“One of the first conversations we have with clients is you have to understand the risks and rewards,” said Perry, the travel adviser, who spells out the potential consequences of quarantines and flight cancellations; none of her clients have been denied reentry. “There’s more risk associated with travel than ever before.”

Lori Speers, owner of Levarte Travel in Dallas, has sent hundreds of clients to Mexico since last summer, largely booking her groups at all-inclusive beach resorts where testing to date has been complimentary.

“During COVID, bookings never slowed down,” she said, noting that some resorts are planning to begin charging for the tests this month, with rates running from $50 to $150.

In Los Cabos, Chung paid $40 for his COVID test.

Lynda Hower, a travel adviser based in Pittsburgh, was vacationing in the Cancún area with her family this month. She said the airport customs lines were crowded with several flights landing at the same time, resulting in little social distancing. To reach the resort, she opted for a private transfer. A few days before returning home, the family was tested for free at the resort and able to receive their negative results via text at the pool.

“It was very professional,” she said, noting that she got the results in 20 minutes.

No 4 a.m. tequila shots

The state of Jalisco, home to Puerto Vallarta, is green on the stoplight system, and it’s not hard to spot a tourist in town, especially as travel has picked up this year.

“The majority are still masked down here, and if someone is not masked, you can assume they are probably a tourist,” said Robert Nelson, a California native who lives in Puerto Vallarta and runs a subscription website, Expats in Mexico. “We are working hard to get more people vaccinated, but we need a little help from the folks visiting to abide by the local regulations.”

But even compliant travelers will find the experience changed, because of fewer visitors or safety protocols.

“Don’t expect bars to allow you to stay until 4 or 5 in the morning doing shots,” Nelson added.

In San Miguel de Allende, the popular colonial town in Guanajuato in central Mexico, public statues are dressed in masks, and anyone entering the central plaza must pass through an arch that mists sanitizer. Local police admonish visitors to wear or pull up their masks and have been known to take scofflaws to jail for flouting the rules.

Ann Kuffner, an American retiree who has been living in San Miguel de Allende for three years, is telling friends who want to visit to wait until fall, when vaccination rates will be higher and the events for which San Miguel is known, such as Day of the Dead festivities, may safely return.

“All Mexicans are wearing masks,” Kuffner said. “Some Americans aren’t because they’re vaccinated, but personally, I think it’s rude. Wearing one is a sign of respect, and respect is an important thing in the Mexican culture.”