March 23, 2020 / 1:04 PM / 7 days ago

Coronavirus cancels Spring Break in Mexico, tourist economy sickens

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico’s sunkissed beaches will lie largely empty during the peak “spring break” season that usually lures tens of thousand of young Americans south, as restrictions aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus spur widespread trip cancellations.

A general view shows empty sun chairs along a beach during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Cancun, Mexico March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Jorge Delgado

Hotel occupancy in the state of Quintana Roo, home to popular Caribbean beach getaways including Cancun and Playa del Carmen, is now below 60% when just a few days ago it was 85%, state Tourism Minister Marisol Venegas told Reuters in a phone interview.

Even more cancellations are expected in the days ahead, dealing a blow to an industry that accounts for 8% of the Mexican economy.

Most years, hotel reservations made during the mid-March to mid-April season reach close to full occupancy.

“Since nearly all of the (spring breakers) come from the American market, they’ll abide by the orders the U.S. government has made and because of that a reduction is a given,” said Vanegas.

The teen and college-age revelers’ spending, meanwhile, accounts for total revenue of between $50 million and $60 million, according to data from a state hotel association and the tourism ministry.

The industry’s 4.4 million workers could see waves of layoffs depending on how the public health crisis plays out, as many hope the expected pain is only short term and a full recovery will follow.

Over the past week, usually-packed beaches, bars and clubs slowly emptied out as U.S. authorities issued a ban on non-essential travel to Mexico, including for tourist trips across the U.S.-Mexico land borders.

A ban on tourist flights has not yet been ordered.

Some local governments in Mexico have also ordered new health-minded rules to minimize the risk of new infections.

Limits have been placed on the number of people that can use public transportation in an effort to promote social distancing in Cancun, which is the top foreign destination for American tourists, outside of cruises.

Local officials are also considering the possibility of shutting down the city’s vibrant club scene where famous European DJs often preside over jam-packed venues.

An executive with U.S.-based STS Travel, an agency that specializes in spring break packages for young Americans, told Reuters via email that the company has witnessed a total stop of activity.

“All operations have been shut down for days and we have been working to get everyone home safe. All future trips have been canceled for the foreseeable future,” wrote Jacob Jacobsen, STS Travel’s vice president for sales.

LOOMING DISASTER?

Despite its tropical appeal and relative proximity, the allure of Spring Break in Mexico had already been waning.

A decade ago, around 250,000 young U.S. vacationers flocked to destinations mostly clustered around Mexico’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts.

Recent years have seen only around 20,000, as many have opted to head to U.S. beaches in Florida and California while still others have favored other foreign vacation spots like the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

The average “spring breaker” spends about $600 during a one-week stay, according to data from the Quintana Roo tourism ministry, while the average, older tourist in Mexico coughs up around $1,600 per week.

A potential wave of cancellations from the latter group is the top worry going forward, as confirmed coronavirus infections now exceed 330,000 world-wide and more testing appears almost certain to drive the tally sharply higher.

Industry leaders like Vanegas are far from convinced that effective containment strategies can save the industry’s near-term prospects.

“We think that the prevention strategy will be able to flatten the (infection rate) curve, but we know it’s going to get worse,” said Vanegas. “We’re not thinking that there will be tourism, not even if we promote it.”

The pandemic’s impact on the industry is equally if not more worrying to its workforce, more than 44,000 in Quintana Roo alone, where half of the local economy is fueled by tourists.

Some form of government assistance for workers directly hit by the coronavirus’ economic fallout is being considered, Vanegas said, but so far no specific plans have been unveiled.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Mauro Medina, who rents parasailing equipment to tourists in Cancun, could only offer lukewarm words of hope that disaster can be averted even as his slumping head and shoulders appeared to betray a dimmer view.

“We depend on this work,” he said.

(This story changes “spurs” to “spur” in lead paragraph.)

Reporting by Diego Ore; Additional reporting by Jorge Delgado in Cancun; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Michael Perry

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