•ALLURE: The state of Quintana Roo in the Mexican Caribbean (pop. 1.85 million) is full of natural wonders, rich history, and a desire for pleasing visitors. Its main international airport in Cancún is also the gateway for international visitors into Mexico with 5 million foreign tourists arriving last year despite the Covid-19 pandemic downturn. The result of a state-planned tourism strategy, Cancún was born in the decade 1970s. Still, the resort town gained notoriety during the 1990s as an anything-goes party town, a reputation that remains today. However, criminal violence is on the rise in Quintana Roo’s tourist hotspots including in the smaller resorts of Playa del Carmen and Tulum. During the past months, foreign governments have issued travel warnings for the region given this new criminal wave. Given its dynamic tourism economy, the state reckons not only with how to deal with security and crime but increasingly with how to encourage a sustainable development model.
•SPRING BREAK & UKRAINE: With Spring Break underway, the Mexican Caribbean is entering its busy season. The state government expects 15,000 spring breakers this year bouncing back to pre-pandemic levels. However, the number is just 10 percent of the total spring breakers that arrived in Cancún a decade ago. The tourism sector in Quintana Roo tries to keep its hopes up, trying to adapt to newer tastes and publics, expand its offer (in places like Tulum), and making the most of recently relaxed restrictions (although mask mandates remain in place). Current global events may also affect slightly the number of international visitors. Earlier this month, Russia flag carrier Aeroflot announced it will suspend its international flights, including one direct flight to Cancún, beginning on March 8 due to airspace restrictions imposed by several countries even when Mexico had not. Aeroflot’s Moscow-Cancún had only reopened in Q3 2021. According to Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism, 75,000 Russians visited Mexico in 2021 with most of them arriving in Cancún. Given that Aeroflot services 72 percent of these tourists, one may expect some impact in international visitors numbers this year. According to government data, 28,000 Ukrainians visited Mexico in 2021.
•VIOLENCE: After long being a calm spot compared to other regions of Mexico, homicides in Quintana Roo spiked by a staggering 112 percent between 2017 (359 homicides) and 2018 (763 homicides). Murders in the state reached 585 in 2021, according to Mexico’s National Public Security System. The number is very similar to that of 2020 when the state reported 581 murders. This means that the murder rate in Quintana Roo in 2021 was of 31.84 for every 100,000 inhabitants. According to state authorities, the vast majority of criminal violence in Quintana Roo has been centered around the profitable drug trafficking route that stems from the growing demand for drugs in the state and up north. In stark contrast to Quintana Roo, neighboring Yucatán state only recorded 42 murders in 2021 and had the lowest homicide rate in the country.
•TOURISTS: During the past few months, Mexico has seen a number of high-profile violent incidents in the tourist areas of the so-called Mayan Riviera. In October, two foreign nationals (one Indian and one German) died in a crossfire of bullets in a restaurant at Tulum, the thriving coastal village that has seen the arrival of a massive number of tourists during the past few years. Later in November, a shootout in the beach area of a hotel near Cancún left two suspected gang members dead. In January, two Canadian nationals were shot execution-style at Xcaret, a luxury resort in Playa del Carmen. Talking about the most recent attack, the state Attorney General reported that the two men victims had a criminal record. Authorities also stated that the attack was planned and that a local gunman was hired for the job. The killings in Xcaret, as state authorities claim, resulted from debts owed by the victims to Canadian-based gangs. A few days later, the Argentinian manager of a popular beach club in Playa del Carmen was also shot. In November of last year, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ordered the deployment of Mexican National Guard’s battalion in Quintana Roo. Some 1,700 National Guard troops arrived in the area between December and January. However, it must be said that the citizens of Quintana Roo -and not foreign tourists- are the ones feeling the brunt of escalating violence in recent years.
•WARNINGS: Right after the latest violent incident in Playa del Carmen, the U.S. Consulate General in Mérida issued a travel alert for Quintana Roo on January 25. The warning reminds American citizens to exercise caution in Cancún, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum. Meanwhile, the German Foreign Office maintains the warning it issued in October of last year for the Mayan Riviera, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen. The Government of Canada’s travel advisory to Mexico remains unchanged recommending to “exercise a high degree of caution” but does not mention specifically the Mexican Caribbean resorts. A state government spokesman said in early February: “Quintana Roo receives more than a 1 million visitors each month, and currently, the number of complaints filed by tourists involved in violent incidents or worse, is equivalent to 0.1 percent [of all criminal complaints]”. Although the violence may not be directed specifically against them, foreign tourists should understand the larger crime context affecting the area. Quintana Roo will hold a state governor’s election in June. Travel trend watchers should be conscious that violence could escalate as the year goes.
•RECOMMENDATIONS: According to data from Mexico’s Ministry of Health, there were 30,652 active Covid-19 cases in the country as of March 7. The four-tier alert system (Semáforo de Riesgo Epidémico) places Quintana Roo (and the rest of the country, except Querétaro) in the green threat level (lowest). Currently, it is estimated there are only 189 active Covid-19 cases in the state, with the highest share located in the Benito Juárez municipality, where Cancún is found (85). These numbers are estimates, but the actual percentage of cases might not be known. Remember that a negative Covid-19 test is required before entering the United States or Canada. As for security, it is important to state that violence against foreign tourists is not widespread. Still, crime trends are still high compared to some years ago. While millions of foreign visitors continue to flock the Mexican Caribbean, some high-profile incidents involving foreign tourists have occurred in the open and during the day. Visitors should have a structured itinerary and rely on their travel agency or hotel staff recommendations. Wonder at your own risk into areas not frequented by tourists. Pay attention to your embassy’s advisories for travel and be sure to know how to contact them in case of an emergency. Be aware of your surroundings and be careful with vendors at the beach: many of them serve as lookouts for drug-trafficking gangs.
•AWARDS: TripAdvisor published its Travelers Choice Awards. Mexico offers two top-ten spots: Cancún in third and Los Cabos in seventh. Read what travelers around the world had to say about them.
•MEXICAN FOOD: In a piece for The New York Times Style Magazine, Dan Piepenbring, Kurt Soller, Amiel Stanek, and Korsha Wilson asked six chefs and experts to help craft a list of the 25 essential dishes in the city. The recommendations, which appear in alphabetical order, include a meatball dish from an Oaxacan restaurant in the Bronx known as La Morada. The chef, Natalia Méndez, opened the restaurant with her family in 2009. Birria tacos at Birria-Landia (in Jackson Heights and in Williamsburg) by brothers José and Jesús Moreno were another entry.
•MONARCHS: The delicate yet mighty Monarch Butterfly makes its way from Canada to Mexico every year (Season: November – March). They perch by the thousands on the trees of forests in Michoacán and Estado de México. The Monarch has also become a symbol of beauty and resistance in Mexican culture. Read this entry on the International Monetary Fund´s website about how Mexico´s Central Bank designed a beautiful 100 peso bill incorporating the migratory species. The design was recognized as the “Bank Note of the Year” by the International Bank Note Society in November 2020.
•ATOLE As winter comes to a close, some people cozy up with a hot cup of coffee, others with a rich mug of cocoa during the season’s last wintry nights. For many in Mexico, atole is the drink of choice. Atole, which comes from the Nahuatl atl, meaning water, is prepared by mixing corn masa with water, milk, unrefined palm sugar, and cinnamon. This base can be flavored with all kinds of fruits and ingredients. Among the most popular are chocolate, coffee, corn, and guava. The starch present in the mixture and its slow-but-steady reduction makes for a dense yet delicious drink. It is enjoyed during cold mornings at stalls in Mexico City. Get it while it’s still hot. ¡Salud!