By Kevin Sieff
Cabo San Lucas in Mexico was literally built for tourists: A blank expanse at the edge of the desert converted into a haven for gringos looking to get away.
Now, Cabo is trying to lure them back – in the middle of one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks.
For months, some of the world’s most-visited attractions were empty of humans, places normally so saturated with tourists that they were nearly unrecognisable without them. Photos circulated of a depopulated Venice, a vacant Times Square, a shuttered Disney World.
The beaches of Cabo, with their peeling, clean waves, once again recalled an untouched desert as Mexico struggled to manage a virus that has infected more than 533 000 people and killed more than 62 000 – the third most in the world.
Throughout the spring, this city’s tourism board, hoteliers and restaurateurs held panicked meetings. At what point would Californians and Texans want to fly south of the border? With high caseloads in those states, at what point should those tourists be encouraged to visit?
At stake was nearly all of Cabo’s economy – 80 percent, according to official statistics. Tourism is an economic engine for the country: It’s the third biggest contributor to GDP at nearly nine percent. During the pandemic, that number dropped close to zero. International flights into Cabo – its main source of visitors – were down 93 percent from last summer.
“It’s life or death for us,” said Rodrigo Esponda, the head of the Los Cabos tourism board. “There’s nothing else here. No industrial production. No farming or commercial fishing. It’s tourism or nothing.”
Last month, Cabo San Lucas and neighbouring San José del Cabo began to reopen to tourists with an advertising campaign that blended the area’s natural beauty with coronavirus recommendations. “Wear a mask,” one ad says, flashing to a video of a woman snorkelling. “Practice social distancing,” it says before displaying an image of a lone surfer.
Cabo Wabo, the bar founded by former Van Halen singer Sammy Hagar, hung a reopening banner next to its “Mas Tequila” mural. Shops sold My First Vacation After Covid shirts. The frog outside of Señor Frogs was newly cleaned.
But just as tourists began to trickle back, the cases in Los Cabos began to rise. It felt like an inevitability – as workers returned and international flights resumed, cases increased from around 50 per day in the state of Baja California Sur to around 150. Some of the city’s hotels hired doctors as consultants to improve their precautions.
But the welcome sign is still out.
“There are some residents who say, ‘Why put my family’s life in danger by inviting more visitors, restarting more flights?,’ ” said Luis Humberto Araiza López, tourism minister of Baja California Sur. “It’s a delicate line between trying to support public health and economic growth.”
It’s a challenge at tourist spots across Mexico.
In Cancún, the largest tourist destination in Latin America, the collapse of the tourism sector – along with other pillars have the economy – has led to concerns of a rise in extreme poverty and malnutrition. Last month, the United Nations said the economic collapse in Mexico could “compromise the health and nutrition of children.” Formal unemployment in the state of Quintana Roo, home to Cancún, has increased by 23 percent since the pandemic began. Experts say that number would be far higher if the informal sector were included.
Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has suggested the return of mass tourism is only months away. By the end of the year, he predicted this month, “the tourism sector will have normalized.” The ministry of tourism, for its part, says conditions won’t return to normal until 2023. The sector’s collapse is part of the reason the International Monetary Fund predicts Mexico’s GDP will fall by more than 10 percent this year, one of the sharpest drops in Latin America.
At the Cape, a glittering seaside hotel just outside Cabo San Lucas, guests are given masks and hand sanitiser upon arrival. They walk through a “sanitisation tunnel” before entering the lobby. Signs in the elevator instruct everyone to maintain social distance. Workers are using blowtorch-like cleaning tools.
But the management has also prepared for the worst-case scenario, setting aside eight rooms behind a “restricted area” sign as an isolation ward in the event of suspected cases of Covid-19. It hasn’t been used yet.
“We need to give our clients the assurance that we’re taking this seriously,” said Eduardo Segura’s, the Cape’s manager. “It’s like opening for the first time all over again.”
Based on the current caseload, the Mexican government is allowing Cabo hotels to fill 30 percent of their rooms. At that ceiling, some hotels said they would lose money and have chosen not to open. The Cape is making a small profit, Segura said.
Surprising some, American guests have eagerly returned. This month, Olympic snowboarding champion Shaun White was spotted at poolside after a surf session. NBA player Chandler Parsons dined with friends.
Other American guests, like Maggie Galvin, an emergency room nurse from Los Angeles, were just trying to briefly escape a horrible year as safely as possible.
“From arrival to every single interaction with hotel staff, I felt 100 percent safe,” she said. “There was consistency with each staff member in wearing masks and having several hand sanitiser stations available.”
But in downtown Cabo San Lucas, normally packed with cruise-goers and other tourists, the city’s iconic bars and restaurants, now open, were mostly empty. It’s here that the economic impact of Cabo’s paralysis is most obvious. In recent years, tens of thousands of people from southern Mexico migrated to Cabo to work. including Federico Iniesta, 50, from Chiapas, a bicycle taxi driver.
“Before the coronavirus, the gringos came, got drunk, had fun,” he said. “They took my bicycle taxi – maybe eight times a day.”
He charges $3 per person per ride. Now, he can go days without a customer. He wonders how he’ll pay his $100-per-year bicycle taxi license.
Noelia Juarez moved to Cabo from Oaxaca 20 years ago and eventually opened a small T-shirt shop. For years, she made enough to put her children through private school.
“Now, I sell one shirt per day if I’m lucky,” she said. “We’ve had to start eating less.”
Others have given up, said Esteban Vargas, the head of one of the largest tourism employee unions in the state.
“They’ve seen that the work is disappearing, so they prefer to go home to Chiapas, Oaxaca or Guerrero, where life is cheaper,” he said.
Across the country, government officials, tourism leaders and business owners are trying to lure Mexicans and foreigners. The city of Acapulco tried to attract millennials with an advertisement that was widely criticised as inappropriate.
“There are no rules. Eat what you want. Have fun during the day, the night and in the wee hours. Wear what you want.” the ad said. “Relax on your own or with company. Redefine yourself and share your craziness.”
The ad was quickly pulled.
The national tourism board tried a different tack, calling the sector “the greatest casualty” of the pandemic. Over rising classical music and soaring vistas, the board promised: “We’ll meet again to give you the warmest welcome.”
On a hot afternoon in downtown Cabo, the waiters and bartenders and souvenir shop owners were making their own pitch, trying their best to lure the few gringos inside, behind buckets of hand sanitizer. Every once in a while, a few notes of Van Halen’s anthemic “Cabo Wabo” could be heard.
“There’s a sleepy town, south of the border,” Hagar croons. “If you go there once, you’ll be there twice.”