•BRAND-NEW YEAR: Mexico is reeling-in after the onslaught of Covid-19’s Omicron variant. Airlines suffering from last-minute changes and ill staff have swamped airports in Mexico City and other destinations, leaving travelers stranded. With the Mexican government imposing nary a travel restriction to international tourists, Mexico is as popular as ever, or at least reaching 2019 pre-pandemic numbers. However, January 2022 could see disruptions to itineraries reminiscent of the start of the pandemic.
•POPULARITY: While official 2021 statistics remain unpublished, Mexico’s tourism trends points upward. Mexico’s Tourism Ministry preliminary data estimates that 31 million international visitors arrived in the country in 2021. This number is 28 percent up from 2020 but 46 percent down from 2019. An analysis by ForwardKeys, a Spanish provider of travel data, shows Cancún and Mexico City among the world’s top destinations for international arrivals. Just behind Dubai, Cancún ranks 2nd worldwide with 4 percent of the global share of air travelers. At the same time, Mexico City sits at 16th place, with 1 percent of the worldwide share, even beating tourism powerhouse Barcelona (19th place). It is the first time both Mexican cities have appeared on the list. The Tourism Ministry also stated that 2021 saw the opening of 72 international new air routes to Mexican destinations: 56 of them connecting Mexico to North America and 7 to Europe. Among these new air routes we can count Lisbon-Cancún (LIS-CUN), Medellín-Cancún (MDE-CUN), Santa Ana-Puerto Vallarta (SNA-PVR). For more insights on the influx of international travelers to Mexico in 2021 read our last month’s post.
•AIRLINES: Airlines are critical drivers for tourism in Mexico. Due to the centralized nature of air travel in Mexico (with most domestic destinations connecting via Mexico City), even minor disruptions to daily operations in the country’s capital can have cascading repercussions for other unrelated routes. On Friday January 7th, Mexico City Airport (MEX) made international headlines after 65 canceled flights in 24 hours. Over 70 pilots of Aeroméxico -Mexico’s flagship airline- tested positive for Covid-19 forcing their entire crews to undergo quarantine. As the weekend wore on, more delays took place. The number of canceled flights during the past days in Mexico City has now reached over 200. Given that American tourists make up the majority of visitors to Mexico, disruptions in U.S. domestic routes will also affect tourism in Mexico due to connecting flights. Over the weekend, the New York Times reported 5,000 flights canceled in the U.S. In 2021, American Airlines moved 4.8 million passengers to Mexico while United Airlines moved 4.1 million.
•CRUISES: Mexico expects the arrival of 486 cruise liners between January and February. Cozumel is still their most popular cruise destination (219 ships). The rest of the programmed arrivals are: 125 to Mahahual, 57 to Cabo San Lucas, 38 to Puerto Vallarta, 27 to Mazatlán, 15 to Puerto Progreso, 4 to Acapulco, and 1 to Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo. During the first ten months of 2021, 621,000 travelers arrived in Mexico via cruise ship which is 75 percent down compared to the same period of 2020. This piece of data is even more concerning given that during 2020, ship cruises operated only from January to March, before the CDC issued its No-sail Order. On December 28th, Mexican authorities announced that they would allow cruise ships to dock and disembark under World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations. Symptomatic individuals or those having tested positive for Covid-19 would receive needed medical care & those with mild symptoms would have to stay in preventative quarantine. However, the prospect for more cruise passengers arriving in Mexican ports in 2022 is directly tied to changing U.S. cruise ships rules. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintain its conditional sailing order on ships operating in U.S. waters but on December 30th they warned against cruise travel regardless of vaccination status given the rise of the Omicron variant. Several U.S. outlets reported on January 5th that coronavirus cases have been detected “on every cruise ship sailing with passengers in U.S. waters”. The total number of ships at the time was 92. The new Omicron wave has already caused some alterations to cruise itineraries in Mexico. In late December, the Jalisco’s state government denied a ship’s request to disembark in the Pacific port of Puerto Vallarta due to some crew members having tested positive for Covid-19. The ship was later allowed to dock north in the Sonoran port of Guaymas.
•OMICRON: According to data from Mexico’s Ministry of Health, as of January 10, there are 158,332 active Covid-19 cases. Baja California Sur (where Cabo San Lucas is located), along with Chihuahua, and Tamaulipas in the U.S. border, place at the highest Covid-19 threat level in the country’s four-tier alert system. Authorities place these states at the orange level (third highest). According to a Quintana Roo’s state government, hospital occupancy rates as of January 10 in the northern part of the state (where Cancún is located) stand at 10 percent. Estimated Covid-19 active cases in the Cancún area are 3,393. The latest available information for Baja California Sur shows that the hospital occupancy rate is 17 percent. Estimated Covid-19 active cases in Los Cabos are 1,629 in Los Cabos and 4,614 in La Paz. Testing and reporting of data varies widely from state to state. In some places, like Mexico City, authorities are urging citizens to quarantine themselves without testing and tracing. Lack of availability of Covid-19 tests amid the Omicron wave seem to be behind the latter recommendation.
•RECOMMENDATIONS: Disruptions to travel and itineraries are almost guaranteed if visiting Mexico during the rest of the month. Doing so comes at your own risk. There are no specific requirements for entering the country, like proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test. Restaurants, hotels, and transport still require customers to wear a mask, and most citizens do so as well. Even if you plan activities for the outdoors, consider that getting to and from your destination might be the hardest part. Make sure to purchase travel insurance. Last-minute changes demand patience and flexibility from all travelers. If possible, plan your flights without stops or layovers in Mexico City. Get vaccinated. U.S.-and-Canadian-bound trips require air travelers to present proof of a negative Covid-19 test before boarding (antigen tests are allowed). However, testing sites in some areas of Mexico might be unable to deal with the sudden spike in demand due to the Omicron wave. Also testing results might only be available after your flight leaves which can cause you miss your flight. Take this into consideration to prevent logistical problems when returning home.
•Break the Piñata. Alejandra Márquez Janse and Justine Kenin write about the quintessential Mexican cultural artifact, the piñata, for NPR. The article covers its history, relation to the posadas (the period around Christmas), and how its artistry is also part of daily Mexican life.
•L.A. Exhibits on the Conquest of Mexico. Writing for The L.A. Times, Christopher Knight reviews two exhibits in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: “Mixpantli: Space, Time, and the Indigenous Origins of Mexico” and “Mixpantli: Contemporary Echoes.” Both deal with objects and language used by the conquered five centuries ago.
•Tamales. Apart from tacos, tamales are among the most famous and diverse Mexican dishes. They consist of masa (a dough made with nixtamalized corn, which are grains previously soaked in an alkaline solution) spread on corn husks or banana leaves and filled with savory or sweet ingredients. They range in size and flavoring, but the preparation is almost identical. After wrapping the masa in the husk, they are steamed. Mexicans can enjoy tamales all year-round, but the Christmas Holidays and the winter months are their most ideal moment. They are widely available in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, or border towns in the United States (or any place with a Mexican presence, for that matter). Apart from getting a taste for them, the most important thing to know about them is that the singular form of tamales is tamal. Cooks, online recipes, newspapers, and even bloggers, most of the time, spell it like tamale. Pair the tamales with Mexican café de olla (coffee with cinnamon and unrefined brown sugar), atole or champurrado (beverages made with masa, chocolate, and sugar), or a piping-hot cup of Mexican chocolate.¡Salud!
* Spotlight by Sergio Mendoza, a freelance writer and consultant specialized in strategic development and geopolitics. He writes the Mexican Memo, a bilingual newsletter on Mexico-U.S. culture and politics. Twitter: @Sergistan