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'We Feel Safe': Americans Keep Visiting Mexico Despite Pandemic Risks

Many Americans are visiting Mexico's beaches during the pandemic. Above, fishing boats are docked at a marina in Los Cabos, Mexico, on June 2.
Alfredo Martinez
Getty Images
Many Americans are visiting Mexico's beaches during the pandemic. Above, fishing boats are docked at a marina in Los Cabos, Mexico, on June 2.

U.S. tourists aren't welcome in most countries around the world because of the high number of coronavirus cases surging in the United States. But at least one country is keeping its borders open: Mexico. And many Americans, keen to escape the cold or lockdowns, are flocking to its stunning beaches.

On a recent weekend in Cabo San Lucas, one of Mexico's top tourist destinations, Sharlea Watkins and her friends downed beers at a restaurant overlooking the city's marina.

"Look at it out here — it's beautiful," said Watkins, pointing to the huge yachts and fishing boats dotting the crystal blue harbor.

"And it's warm," she added. Back in Boise, Idaho, where all the friends live, it has been in the 30s. And the months indoors have been tough.

In Los Cabos, which includes the sister cities of Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo, it's a different story. "There's no restrictions. It's beautiful. We feel safe," she said.

Mexico has the fourth-highest death total from COVID-19 in the world and is experiencing a surge in infections and hospitalizations in the capital and its surrounding suburbs. Despite that and fast-rising case numbers in other countries like the United States, Mexico doesn't require travelers to show proof of a negative coronavirus test or to quarantine upon arrival.

So when two of Watkins' friends decided to tie the knot and wedding venues at home were closed because of the pandemic, the group went south of the border.

Steve Edwards, who builds homes in Boise, was performing the nuptials. "I'm an ordained minister, ordained through the Internet," he said, drawing raucous laughter from all the friends. He said he had the couple jot down their vows at the bar and they'd read the vows once out on a rented boat beside Los Cabos' signature landmark rock-arch formation.

The Arch of Cabo San Lucas, one of Mexico's top tourist destinations, in 2017.
Dean Treml / Red Bull via Getty Images
Red Bull via Getty Images
The Arch of Cabo San Lucas, one of Mexico's top tourist destinations, in 2017.

Tourism officials are cheering the return of tourists, especially those from the United States. Figures for October, the last month available, show that nearly half a million Americans arrived in Mexico by plane.

Early on in the pandemic, in late March, Los Cabos shut down entirely. With nearly 80% of jobs in the region dependent on tourism, the losses were huge.

According to Mexico's National Institute of Statistics and Geography, tourism lost more jobs than any other industry. Nearly a third of all businesses in Baja California Sur, the state where Los Cabos is located, closed down.

And a warning in late November by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advising Americans against travel to Mexico seemed to threaten even greater job loss.

There have also been news reports that American tourists could have contributed to coronavirus outbreaks in Mexico.

But Los Cabos officials insist they have instituted tough safety protocols, which they tout in ads running on several travel websites. In one example, an announcer declares that "before you visit, get to know the rules in Los Cabos," with a frame highlighting mask-wearing that shows a woman snorkeling among fish. Another frame plugs self-distancing rules with an enticing scene of a lone surfer in vast blue waters.

The state's tourism secretary, Luis Humberto Araiza, says safety really does come first. Hotels and restaurants are limited to 50% capacity, visitors' temperatures are taken before entering any stores and masks are mandatory. Police and inspectors monitor the situation, he insists.

Eric Santillán, director of Los Cabos' civil protection agency, says his agency has sanctioned several hotels and at least eight restaurants for exceeding capacity limits. Just this month, he says, one event hall was slapped with a hefty fine totaling about $4,000. But he admits that with just six inspectors per shift, it's tough to patrol much of Los Cabos' resorts and restaurants.

Officials are also helping pay for widespread testing of industry employees, making the state second only to Mexico City for coronavirus testing, says Araiza.

"We aren't invincible. Sure you can get infected, but the risk here is much less than in other places," he says.

And indeed, virus cases did spike there after authorities began to gradually lift restriction measures in June.

Dr. Enrique Hernández, a trauma specialist in Los Cabos, got COVID-19 back then and says he saw many colleagues die.

"It's frustrating seeing tourists and locals alike being irresponsible and not wearing masks now," he said.

Throughout the country and especially in Mexico City, hospitals are reaching capacity and deaths are on the rise.

Regardless, Marta Zurita hopes travelers keep coming. She was recently selling handicrafts at an outdoor holiday bazaar and owns a local steakhouse. She says the lockdown earlier this year was brutal. It wasn't until the last few weeks that she began to see reservations picking up.

"We almost called it quits and shut down," she says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.