The slow roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines in Mexico and international travel restrictions announced by the US, Canada and other countries will hamper the recovery of tourism, according to three experts, two of whom said the sector could have a worse year in 2021 than in 2020.
The number of international tourists who came to Mexico last year fell 46% to 24.3 million as the pandemic and related restrictions devastated the global tourism industry. Tourism revenue slumped even more, dropping 55% from 2019 to just over $ 11 billion.
Still, Mexico fared better than many other countries where tourism is an important contributor to the economy as a whole, largely because it hasn’t closed its borders or imposed burdensome restrictions on incoming travelers. The Ministry of Tourism (Sectur) expects data to show that Mexico ranks third in terms of international visitors in 2020, just behind France and Italy.
However, a surge in global tourism rankings is cold comfort to the millions of Mexicans who directly or indirectly depend on the arrival of tourists in the country’s various travel destinations. Many tourism workers were suddenly unemployed when coronavirus restrictions were first imposed in Mexico in March last year while others kept their jobs but lowered their wages or incomes.
Almost a year later, a full recovery in the tourism sector, which contributed nearly 10% of GDP before the pandemic, seems a long way off.
Pablo Álvarez Icaza, professor in the School of Tourism at the National Polytechnic Institute, told El Universal newspaper that international travel rules have recently been changed by countries like the United States and Canada, – Mexico’s two main sources for international visitors – will ensure 2021 is a complicated year for tourism.
He added that recovery will depend on widespread use of vaccines in the Mexican population, but noted that these are slowly being distributed.
In fact, Mexico’s vaccination program has not yet moved to Stage 2 – vaccinating seniors – although it does is expected to reach this stage next week.
The slow rollout so far “closes 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, admitted that the Mexican tourism industry benefited from the government’s decision to keep the borders open to international tourists, but noted that it also had health implications as coronavirus cases imported and triggered the pandemic.
He told El Universal that using vaccines would help the tourism sector recover, but not act as a “magic wand” and suddenly make everything better.
This year “may be the same or worse than 2020 with the vaccines and all,” Bojórquez said.
He claimed that countries that manage to vaccinate the majority of their populations quickly will be better able to attract tourists than countries like Mexico, where adoption is slower. Bojórquez said government support was needed for Mexico’s tourism sector, pointing out that the average hotel occupancy rate was below 30% in January and that many hotels were forced to cut prices to attract guests.
According to Humberto Molina, a tourism-specialist economist with consulting firm Gemes, new international travel rules, including requirements to present negative Covid-19 tests and go into quarantine before the flight, will undermine the benefit of the Mexican tourism sector last year as a result the open borders of the country.
Canada’s three-month suspension of flights between February and April is also on likely to cost Mexico hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue, if not more.
“Tourism is not going to recover automatically this year – 2021 could be worse than 2020 if no progress is made in tackling the pandemic around the world,” Molina said.
Echoing Bojórquez, he said that if Mexico doesn’t roll out the vaccines quickly and get the pandemic under control, the country won’t be seen as an attractive tourist destination. However, Molina noted that 70% of the US population is expected to be vaccinated by September and 90% by the end of the year, claiming that Americans would be more confident about traveling abroad and that Mexico could benefit from it.
“There is a suppressed demand [for travel] that can be exploited, ”he said.
The Ministry of Tourism is also somewhat pessimistic about the outlook for tourism in 2021 The number of international tourists will increase by 33.7% in 2021 compared to the previous year in the best case. Even if that prediction – made prior to Canada’s flight ban announcement – comes true, a total of 33.1 million visitors will be a 26% decrease from the record 45 million that flocked to Mexico in 2019.
In the worst-case scenario, only 25.2 million international tourists will come to Mexico this year, Sectur said.
This would mean only a minimal increase in arrivals compared to 2020, which could better be described as a continuation of the tourism sector’s suffering over the past year than a real recovery it desperately longs for.