It’s no secret that Mexico has been hit hard by the coronavirus epidemic. With over 20,000 confirmed deaths and cases still on the rise, it appears to be not only one of the worst affected countries, but also to be experiencing one of the most sustained and unrelenting outbreaks globally.
A consensus as to where Mexico is in its Covid trajectory is elusive, but frustrations are boiling over and the ever-growing crowd of virtual protesters is pointing to entire industries at their tipping point — Mexico’s temper is wearing thin.
The powers-that-be have acknowledged this, and the hum of society’s engine is again audible. Factories in Mexico City are opening under strict sanitary guidelines, travel curbs have been lifted, and despite recent roll-backs of certain measures due to continual outbreaks in the capital, the general unanimity that the country is on a path to normality remains.
Half of all Mexican states have now reached infection levels deemed compatible with limited social reopening, albeit at a maximum of 50% capacity in restaurants and hotels.
Perhaps most significantly, the tourism industry, which has been suffocated by travel restrictions and the shutdown of the hospitality sector, is on track to be partially functional for a portion of the summer period. While we won’t be seeing images of holidaymakers lining every inch of the Cancún sand, there may be just enough business to tide the industry over until we completely cross the rubicon.
But is it too late to be saved? Most of the economy was wound down in the final week of March, and in the following month Mexico registered only 86,000 visitors, down from 2.8 million in the same period just a year before. Tourism is the bedrock of 11 million jobs, directly or indirectly, and with the blindside punch of lockdown, hundreds of thousands of hotel workers, flight attendants, waiters, and beach cleaners were simply told to go home and wait it out.
Tourism is often seen as too big to fail in Mexico, but the truth is it’s too big to fail its employees; the after-shocks of its collapse would be felt generations down the line.
The tourism minister has understood the desperation of the situation in suggesting that the tourism industry should be treated as an “essential activity” so that it could be one of the first to reopen alongside factories, construction, and the energy sector. But while the situation in many regards is urgent, the immediacy with which officials are seeking to ease the industry out of its slumber may be overly hasty.
One of the many ironies of the pandemic’s effect on the beaches of Cancún and other stretches of tourist paradise is that only now do they reflect the pristine and peaceful pictures from the brochures. The reminder that these areas have been exploited and overrun for decades is a welcome one, and the sudden quiet of once burgeoning and unstable resorts is deafening. While the extended absence of tourists from the beaches adds pressure on the industry as a whole, it serves as a timely prompt that its bloated size was getting to be inherently unstable.
Maybe this could be a turning point for tourism in Mexico. The pandemic has exposed some of the most fundamental inequalities in our society and as it tears through this once booming sector, it leaves us with no choice but to consider a future of tourism that recognizes the byproducts, environmental deterioration and cultural interference, and actively tries to re-balance these.
Through the shutdown we have not only seen how tourism affects wildlife and the environment, but we’ve observed the influence it has over the communities that support the industry through real estate and an ever-growing workforce. As we emerge from the coronavirus sludge, it will be important to re-evaluate the ways in which we have, over the last 50 years, reversed our initial model of society; essentially we have changed from building communities around industries, to building industries on top of communities.
This is perilous — not only does it leave a community on unstable foundations, it gives the illusion of strength and timelessness. Who could have imagined a million tourists disappearing from the beach, whipping the rug out from an entire city’s working population? For years the base of community and industry has been welded together so that with the demise of one comes the demise of the other. It’s an instability that is systemic, and that may only be observable in the wake of an economically and socially tragic event like this one.
Whether this idea will be considered in a meaningful sense is questionable; the eagerness to get the wheels turning again is overwhelming and the question of how we build societies will seem increasingly ethereal the longer workers in the industry go without money in their pocket.
But we should remember how the pandemic exposed the foundations of the tourism industry which, as sturdy as they seemed, snapped with devastating effects. Perhaps, fittingly, our reminder could be those images from the brochures of those pristine beaches, abandoned.
Jack Gooderidge writes from Campeche.