•SPOTLIGHT: Spring Break and Holy Week were the concluding chapters of one of Mexico’s high seasons for travel. The country now awaits the next one, which coincides with the summer months. Covid-19 may have altered overarching patterns for travelers: canceled cruise bookings, stricter health policies, or foreigners easing into WFB (Work From the Beach) mode. Yet, the violence looming over some of Mexico’s most popular travel destinations -specifically on its Caribbean Coast- could significantly impact how tourism trends behave for the rest of the year. Despite its popularity among international tourists, Tulum remains among one of the most violent municipalities in Mexico with a murder rate of 175.7 per 100,000. Pressure is mounting on federal and state authorities to guarantee the safety of citizens, businesses, and visitors.
•PARADOX: Despite high levels of criminal violence, the Caribbean Coast remains the principal driving force behind Mexico’s hefty tourism industry. Although international tourism to Mexico has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels, data from international passengers arriving at Cancún International Airport (CUN) point to a healthy recovery for Mexico’s Caribbean destinations. During the first four months of 2022, 6.7 million international visitors landed there. The figure is already more significant than the 6.2 million international arrivals during 2019. In 2021, Cancún leapfrogged to rank 10th -from 28th in 2020- among the world’s busiest airports measured by the number of enplaned and deplaned international passengers. With other destinations now relaxing Covid-19 entry requirements and growing inflation, it remains to be seen if Cancún can maintain its position as a tourism powerhouse. The Mexican Caribbean’s popularity as a wedding destination might prove the fact. For example, a London-based jewelry company compiled a list where Cancún and Playa del Carmen grabbed top spots. The ranking considers weather, the price of luxury accommodations, and LGBTQ+ friendliness. Yet, the popularity of such Mexican destinations would seem to run contrary to repeated incidents of criminal violence that have even affected international tourists in recent months.
•VIOLENCE: Regrettably, violent criminal incidents are becoming commonplace in several of Mexico’s Caribbean resort towns. On May 6, armed men attacked two commercial establishments in an area of Cancún noted for its bars and restaurants, killing four people. Authorities believe that a conflict between two rival criminal groups -vying for dominance in the local extortion market- was behind the increase in violence. On April 15, a shooting at a parking lot in Xcaret, a popular theme park near Playa del Carmen, resulted in one person’s death. State authorities reported that no tourists were harmed and searched for a suspect who fled using a motorcycle. The state of alert in the region appears unsettling, even leading to ludicrous situations, as exemplified by an incident at Cancún International Airport. Travelers reported hearing shots inside one of its terminals on March 28. Crowds ran for cover while airline employees and security personnel directed people to safe places. National Guard members soon arrived at the scene, preparing for the worst. After inspecting the terminal, authorities did not find evidence of a shootout. They concluded that a billboard, possibly knocked over by a passerby, was the source of the clatter. The situation sparked a national conversation about the changing security landscape in tourist destinations.
•CONTROL: Several criminal organizations are divvying up the Mexican territory. Most profitable of all are the trafficking routes where people and drugs gush towards the U.S., while weapons and dollars flow south as payment. The accelerated growth of tourism and related economic activities in the Mayan Riviera has attracted the attention of criminal organizations. In March, Mexican authorities arrested 11 alleged members of a gang of kidnappers in Cancún. The suspects allegedly belonged to Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), one of Mexico’s most lethal criminal groups. Authorities said that ransom money was not their aim, but rather locating, threatening, abducting, or hiring rival drug dealers. Local businesses survive gangs and other criminal groups like CJNG, including the Sinaloa Cartel or Los Zetas. For example, criminals may charge a small business a fee equivalent to US $50 and up to $250 (1,000 to 5,000 Mexican pesos) every month. Some restaurants, clubs, and hotels may pay US $2,500 or up to US $5,000 monthly in Quintana Roo to franchisees to crime syndicates. Their tactics are one of control over the region, the economy, and the population, while they diversify their criminal endeavors.
•IMPACT: Criminal groups in the Mexican Caribbean do not generally target travelers, especially foreigners. They understand that their organization’s encroachment upon valuable economic activities depends on the success of the tourism industry. However, some high-profile incidents since last October have shown that foreign nationals are not entirely safe from the violence affecting the region. After the death of one Indian and one German tourist in a crossfire in Tulum and the execution of two Canadian citizens near Playa del Carmen in January, foreign governments issued travel warnings about the situation in the Mexican Caribbean. The U.S. State Department Travel Advisory for Quintana Roo is currently at Level 2: visitors should exercise increased caution due to crime. Mexico’s Tourism Minister visited Washington early in May. His visit included a stop with U.S. State Department officials. He asked them for more specific travel advisories arguing that violent incidents occur far from tourism hotspots. Overall, Quintana Roo remains a safe place to travel to, but travelers should understand the context of their holiday. (Read our list of precautions for visitors here)
•POLICY: Tourism is Quintana Roo’s most profitable activity. Recently, the state governor Carlos Joaquín explained the relevance of Holy Week and other vacation seasons for the area. The governor understands that international tourism, in particular, is key to economic growth, more jobs, and a better quality of life. Given the above, it is not surprising that Governor Joaquín promoted a campaign stressing how all Quintanarroans should be looking to protect tourists from any danger. For him, assuring tourists’ security, free movement in the region, and their safe return home means they will be willing to visit again. He considers travelers as the state’s leading promoters. Quintana Roo’s state government and local business associations recently issued brochures alerting visitors about drug use. Tourists must sign documents stating that they understand the legal and health consequences of buying drugs in Mexico. Authorities believe that this action will be enough to dent the state’s security crisis. Criminal groups rely on income from various sources, not only the drug trade, so a more robust strategy is needed to deal with the situation without altering or hurting local dynamics. So far, new military deployments by the federal government -with the arrival of the so-called Tourism Batallion- have yet to show their effectiveness. On the Covid-19 front, Quintana Roo is at the lowest alert level (green, in a four-tier system). As of May 23, there are 231 active cases in the state.
•Mexico City’s (Un)finished New Airport. Kylie Madry, writing for Reuters, describes how the new airport remains empty after a recent grandiose inauguration. Mexico’s Benito Juárez International (AICM) is still in operation.
•The Faceless Grief of the Zapotec People. Oaxacan photographer artist Luvia Lazo captures the feelings and vanishing traditions of the Zapotec community in a series called “Kanitlow” (it means “I am missing your face” in their language). Ana Karina Zatarain writes about Lazo’s work in The New Yorker. You can also look at Lazo’s photographs on her Instagram page @luvia_lazo.
•A New Museum Dedicated to Mexican Cuisine. Emily Williams briefs Smithsonian Magazine about the opening on April 10 of L.A. Plaza Cocina in downtown Los Angeles. The institution’s first exposition covered the history of maize, from ancient times to a vision of its future as a cultural staple. The museum gathers artifacts, books, and other materials to understand Mexico’s many regions and cultures expressed through food.
•TEPACHE: As the interest in fermented drinks grows, foreign palettes have become acquainted with tepache. Tepache is a barely fizzy drink (1 percent ABV) made by soaking tropical fruit pieces in water for a few days. Unrefined sugar (piloncillo), cinnamon, and other spices (clove and allspice, among others, vary by region) are added at the beginning of the process. Its name comes from the Nahuatl tepatl (tepitl “corn” + atl “water”). In prehispanic times the drink was prepared by soaking early-harvested corn for fifty days. The recipe calls for almost any fruit (guava, apple, or even tamarind), but pineapple is the most traditional flavor. It can be found in many places in Mexico, in street stalls or taquerías, especially in the summertime. More complex variations include adding more sugar, baking soda, water, or sugarcane liquor. Icecubes are always a must. Pair it with a quesadilla, topped with crunchy grasshoppers, or with tacos covered with a dark, spicy salsa. ¡Salud!