The slow rollout of Covid-19 vaccines in Mexico and international travel restrictions announced by the United States, Canada and other countries will hinder the tourism recovery, according to three experts, two of whom said that the sector could have a worse year in 2021 than in 2020.
The number of international tourists who came to Mexico last year slumped 46% to 24.3 million as the pandemic and associated restrictions ravaged the global tourism industry. Tourism revenue crashed even harder, plummeting 55% compared to 2019 to just over US $11 billion.
Still, Mexico fared better than many other countries where tourism makes an important contribution to the overall economy, largely because it didn’t close its borders or place any onerous restrictions on incoming travelers. The Ministry of Tourism (Sectur) expects that data will show that Mexico ranked third for international visitors in 2020 behind only France and Italy.
But a rise in the global tourism rankings is cold comfort for the millions of Mexicans who rely directly or indirectly on the arrival of tourists in the various destinations around the country. Many tourism workers suddenly found themselves unemployed when coronavirus restrictions were first imposed in Mexico last March while others kept their jobs but saw their wages or income slashed.
Almost a year later, a full recovery of the tourism sector, which before the pandemic contributed to almost 10% of GDP, still appears a long way off.
Pablo Álvarez Icaza, a professor at the National Polytechnic Institute’s School of Tourism, told the newspaper El Universal that the international travel rules recently announced by countries including the United States and Canada, – Mexico’s top two sources for international visitors – will ensure that 2021 is a complicated year for tourism.
He added that a recovery will depend on a widespread application of vaccines among the Mexican population but noted they are being distributed slowly.
Indeed, Mexico’s vaccination program has not yet progressed to stage 2 – the inoculation of seniors – although it is expected to reach that phase next week.
The slow rollout to date is “closing the doors to the rest of the world,” said Álvarez, a former Sectur official.
Armando Bojórquez, president of the Latin America Culture and Tourism Association, acknowledged that Mexico’s tourism industry benefited from the government’s decision to keep the borders open to international tourists but noted that there were also health consequences because coronavirus cases were imported and helped fuel the pandemic.
He told El Universal that the application of vaccines will help the tourism sector recovery but won’t function as a “magic wand” and suddenly make everything better.
This year “may be the same as or worse than 2020, with the vaccines and everything,” Bojórquez said.
He asserted that countries that manage to vaccinate the majority of their population quickly will be in a better position to attract tourists than nations where the rollout is slower, such as Mexico. Bojórquez said that government support for the Mexican tourism sector is needed, pointing out that average hotel occupancy was below 30% in January and that many hotels were forced to slash prices to attract guests.
According to Humberto Molina, an economist at the consultancy firm Gemes who specializes in tourism, new international travel rules, including requirements to present negative Covid-19 tests before flying and go into mandatory quarantine, will undermine the advantage the Mexican tourism sector enjoyed last year as a result of the country’s open borders.
Canada’s three-month suspension of flights between February and April is also expected to cost Mexico hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue, if not more.
“Tourism will not recover automatically this year – 2021 could be worse than 2020 if there is not progress in controlling the pandemic across the whole world,” Molina said.
Echoing Bojórquez’s remarks, he said that if Mexico doesn’t roll out vaccines quickly and bring the pandemic under control, the country won’t be seen as an attractive tourism destination. However, Molina noted that 70% of the United States population is expected to be vaccinated by September and 90% by the end of the year, asserting that Americans will be more confident about traveling abroad as a result and Mexico could benefit.
“There is a repressed demand [for travel] that can be exploited,“ he said.
The Ministry of Tourism is also somewhat pessimistic about the outlook for tourism in 2021. It said last month that international tourist numbers will increase 33.7% in 2021 compared to last year in a best-case scenario. However, even if that prediction – made before Canada announced the flight suspension – comes true, a total of 33.1 million visitors will represent a decline of 26% compared to the record 45 million who flocked to Mexico in 2019.
In a worst-case scenario, only 25.2 million international tourists will come to Mexico this year, Sectur said.
That would represent only a minimal increase in arrivals compared to 2020 that would be better described as a continuation of the suffering the tourism sector endured last year rather than the real recovery it desperately craves.