Updated on Nov. 17 at 3:15 p.m.: Updated to note deployment of federal troops.
CANCUN, Mexico – A record number of Americans battling cabin fever are flocking south of the border, searching for post-pandemic relief with walks along the pristine waters of Mexico’s stunning beaches — at affordable prices.
That’s critical good news for Mexico, where tourism supports over 4.5 million jobs across the country, making it one of the more important industries in the country. But is it safe to travel there, and how is this nation of 130 million people coping with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Experts say most tourist destinations are safe, and to reinforce that, the government announced this week that it is sending additional troops to the Caribbean coastline. With vaccination and the exercise of basic cautions, the beaches are prime candidates for a vacation.
The most popular international flight from Dallas-Fort Worth? It’s not London, or Paris. Try Cancún, with an average of eight daily flights.
Once a famed destination for spring breakers, the beach resort is luring Americans of all ages, particularly Texans, year-round. And it’s not just beaches that are drawing people to Mexico, but also other great wanderlust haunts, from Oaxaca to cosmopolitan Mexico City with its majestic Reforma Avenue.
The DFW to Mexico air passenger market grew to 2,319.9 passengers per day during the third quarter of 2021, up from 1,746.3 for the same quarter in 2019, according to analysts at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.
The trend indicates the growing economic and cultural integration between Texas and Mexico and the post-pandemic need to escape. It’s as though distance and time away because of COVID-19 made the heart fonder, said Mexican Consul General in Dallas Francisco “Paco” de la Torre.
“No doubt. Texans missed traveling to Mexico more than they ever realized,” said De la Torre, who, in his more than five years as consul, has seen the number of Mexican destinations tripled for Americans traveling from North Texas to Mexico. “Mexico has been the closest destination for Texans, not only regarding geography, which it obviously is, but also when talking about family ties, trade, shopping, tourism, culture, food and sports.”
He added, “An average two-hour flight allows any Texan to visit a vibrant international city like Mexico City, or know the colors of Oaxaca, or the flavors of Yucatan or the wonderful beaches in the Caribbean” and the Pacific.
Vicky Uzal, Commercial Director of American Airlines in Mexico, said the airline has seen an increase of 76% in filled passenger seats this year compared with 2020. It’s up 25% compared with pre-pandemic 2019 for its DFW-Cancún route.
In addition to American Airlines, Frontier and Spirit also offer direct almost-three-hour flights from DFW to Cancún, round trip, for the Thanksgiving holiday, a peak season, for between $550 and $650.
Beaches have become so popular that American Airlines has been increasing the number of flights to more beach destinations in Mexico during this winter break. The DFW-Los Cabos is increasing from 32 flights weekly to 35.
“On all routes to Cozumel, Huatulco, Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos, the frequencies to Dallas will increase towards the winter,” Uzal said.
Spirit Airlines increased its number of monthly direct flights between DFW and Cancún from 29 in March to 47 in October, according to data provided by Diio Cirium, a flight frequencies database program.
Other beloved beaches include Puerto Vallarta, Bahía de Nayarit and Cabo San Lucas, the popular tourist destinations on the Pacific coast.
Many of the beach destinations are almost fully recovered from the economic downturn from the pandemic. Employment is up again, and hotels are open to full capacity
Los Cabos alone had nearly 118,000 international visitors in September 2021, marking its most successful September ever with a 40% increase compared with 2019, according to Los Cabos Tourism Board.
Rodrigo Esponda, Managing Director of the tourism board, said the pandemic underscored the need to focus on quality and strengthening COVID-19 protocols. For instance, Esponda said, nearly 90% of Cabo’s population 18 years and older — most of them in the service industry — have received at least one vaccine shot, underscoring the importance of tourism to Mexico’s economy.
Los Cabos is “more than ready, having implemented the best COVID-19 protocol measures,” Esponda explained.
Tourism contributes 9% to Mexico’s GDP, making it one of the more important industries in the nation.
That helps explain why Mexico reopened for tourism in mid-summer. The country generally has few pandemic restrictions, although some passengers from high-risk COVID-19 countries are usually screened on arrival. There is also no need to provide a negative PCR test or quarantine on arrival, though most resorts ask guests to fill out health questionnaires.
In Quintana Roo state, Americans flocked to the white sands and turquoise waters. Many explore the Mayan ruins near Tulum, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, Holbox and other destinations near Cancún.
So far this year, Cancún has registered a hotel occupancy rate of 51.5%. In 2020, it registered 37.8%.
“From the beginning, Americans returned, looking for normalcy,” said Marco Antonio Gutierrez, 32, a cab driver in Cancún. “You just saw that look in their eyes of relief to be back staring at this,” he said, pointing to the white sands and pristine turquoise waters.
As the holidays approach, some hotels are offering special promotions. For example, Mvngata Hotel, part of a boutique chain located in Mayakoba, just south of Cancún, is offering Black Friday and Cyber Monday specials.
“Our message to all tourists is not to fear traveling during the holidays,” said Felipe Cruz Escalante, a supervisor at Mvngata. “We need to continue living our lives with its new normalcy, always respecting and protecting the well-being of others.” He said his hotel and others require their staff to follow strict COVID-19 protocols.
Currently, the U.S. has a travel alert of level 3: “reconsider travel” to Mexico because of COVID-19.
Mexico has administered more than 126 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine. Cases saw a dramatic spike upward in late summer, though numbers started declining sharply in September and October.
Mexico has a traffic light system of restrictions, with red signifying maximum regulations, orange limiting capacity in public spaces and at work to 30%, yellow allowing for all work to resume and public gatherings to take place, and green meaning there are no restrictions in place.
Quintana Roo, where Cancun and Playa del Carmen are located, is listed as green. Baja California Sur, home to Cabo San Lucas, and Mexico City, are green as well.
COVID-19 testing is required for Americans returning home from Mexico. Tests are usually arranged by host’s hotels. Unvaccinated people must be tested one day before their departure. Fully vaccinated U.S. citizens can get tested as early as three days before their flight.
“We can’t wait to escape for a couple of days and spend our Christmas there,” said Consuelo Ibarra, 33, of Grapevine. “We wanted to travel before, but we were afraid because of COVID.”
Ibarra is flying from DFW to Cancún during her two children’s Christmas break, along with her husband and her 6-month-old baby. They plan to meet up there with more family who are flying from different cities in Mexico and the U.S.
“I think there is a risk everywhere, but we will try to be careful, of course. Use our face masks all the time that is possible,” Ibarra said.
Staying safe from crime
The rising lure of Mexico as a travel destination comes despite recent high-profile shooting cases involving tourists. In mid-October, two foreign tourists were killed in Tulum by crossfire during an apparent drug-gang shootout.
The killings threatened Tulum’s reputation as a low-key, carefree beach town without the crowding problems of Cancún.
And two weeks ago, four American tourists were injured in a hotel resort in Cancún while caught in the crossfire of another apparent drug-gang shootout.
Mexico Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval, speaking Wednesday in Cancún alongside Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said that 1,445 national guard members will be sent to Quintana Roo to reinforce the region’s security.
The deployment will include the establishment of a base in Tulum.
“That can’t happen again,” López Obrador said. “We have to avoid that happening. That’s why there’s this plan to reinforce security.”
Experts say that, despite the recent incidents, Mexico is largely a safe place to travel.
“The probability of being killed or seriously harmed by traveling in Mexico is still very, very low because we literally have millions and millions of Americans coming to Mexico every year,” said David Shirk, chairman of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of San Diego and director of the Justice in Mexico program, an annual report on crime and violence in Mexico. “And the vast majority, some 99% of them, are coming home without being targeted for violent crime.”
The U.S. State Department says “homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery” are widespread in Mexico. But some areas are much safer than others. The U.S. says that, when traveling to popular destinations in Quintana Roo and Baja California Sur, for example, people should exercise “increased caution,” whereas the U.S. recommends against travel to 16 other states.
The U.S. continues to ask its citizens to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to receive security messages and help with the location of citizens in case of an emergency abroad.
Security worries aside, it’s the memories of Mexico that linger on, some tourists say. Some, like Raymond Robertson, wax poetic about Cancún.
“I dream of the Mexican Caribbean at least twice a week,” said Robertson, a professor of economics and government at Texas A&M University’s Bush School. “That’s where heaven meets the beach, where crystalline waters just come up with that powder, white sand. There’s no other beach in the world that’s as beautiful as the beaches in Cancún. It’s phenomenal.”
Alfredo Corchado reported from Cancún and María Ramos Pacheco reported from El Paso. Staff writer Kyle Arnold contributed to this report.