Are U.S. Tourists Responsible for Mexico’s Recent Record-Breaking COVID-19 Spike?

We have the facts and we're voting yes...ish

Aerial view of the old town of Guanajuato, Mexico
© Marco Bottigelli / Getty Images

For nearly the entire pandemic, the United States has had the highest number of COVID-19 cases—and deaths—in the entire world. According to data from John Hopkins University, the current running tally of 21,503,004 positive cases and 364,218 COVID-related deaths in the U.S. account for nearly a quarter of the world’s cases and almost 20 percent of worldwide deaths. (*Editor's note: This data was recorded on date of article: January 8, 2021 and changes by the minute).

It’s no wonder that, in 2020, Americans finally experienced the unfamiliar feeling of a door-in-the-face when it came to travel, as borders to many of top vacation destinations closed to us in 2020 over coronavirus concerns. Most of the borders that have reopened worldwide have done so cautiously, requiring negative PCR tests, mandatory quarantines, or both, particularly from U.S. travelers, if not all travelers.

Mexico is one of the exceptions—and it’s starting to show. When the country went into a nationwide lockdown in March, its new daily case numbers were in low double-digits, and deaths were in the singles. When the country relaxed its lockdown restrictions on June 1, 2020, the death count was 10,167—five weeks later, it was 32,796. According to a New York Times article, U.S. tourism to Mexico doubled during this time between June and August.

Interestingly, when Mexico went into lockdown, it never closed its borders to international tourists—the economic impact for its citizens would have been too great. Though the U.S.-Mexico land border had closed on March 18, 2020 (and remains closed until January 21, 2021), air travel was never restricted. In fact, Mexico is one of the only countries in the world that kept its borders swung wide open to travelers from all over the globe—and let them in sans any COVID-19 requirements; no negative tests, no mandatory quarantine periods, nada.

Now, one week into the new year, Mexico’s reported positive case numbers are steadily rising toward 1.5 million. The country’s COVID-related deaths are over 130,000.

Yet, miraculously, the continued rise in cases and deaths hasn’t scared off tourists. Many travelers who feel stuck in lockdown and pandemic restrictions at home in the U.S. and other countries seem to view Mexico as a place where the pandemic doesn’t exist (though clearly, it does). Despite U.S. travel warnings against travel to Mexico from the CDC and Department of State, both citing a high level of risk for COVID-19, it’s been reported that over half a million U.S. travelers visited Mexico around October/November—again edging the dates when case numbers began increasing.

Still, when looking at graphs of new daily case numbers over the last few months for the ten countries with the highest number of COVID-19 cases, the curve looks eerily similar, with cases beginning to rise sometime in October and continuing to rise or even spike in November or December.

Even so, several articles have come out over the last few weeks that are quick to point (or at least wave) the finger at tourists, specifically U.S. tourists, as the reason for Mexico’s surge in cases. Have U.S. tourists caused Mexico’s increase in cases?

For travel writer Jenny Hart, the answer is a bit complicated. “I don’t want to say that tourism is not impacting cases of COVID in Mexico—because, yes, it must be impacting cases of COVID—but honestly, I don’t think that that’s what is actively spreading it,” she says, adding that for many Mexican locals, there was no option to stay at home or isolate because they needed to work. Hart, who has traveled to different parts of Mexico several times over the last nine months to see her boyfriend, who cannot obtain a U.S. visa because of the pandemic, doesn’t believe that traveling during the pandemic is inherently bad. Instead, she believes the danger lies in “getting into the mindset of, ‘I just need a vacation, so I’m taking a vacation’—and then forgetting you’re still in a pandemic when you get there.”

Alicia-Rae Light, a Vancouver-based travel writer, took a trip to Oaxaca in October and said every single person she saw was wearing masks and following other pandemic protocols–even on her AeroMexico flight. She said seeing everyone’s fastidiousness made her feel safer in Mexico than back home in British Columbia, Canada, where, at the time, they were not required to wear face-coverings in public. However, Light also mentioned she opted to visit more secluded areas and rarely saw any other obvious tourists (if any), except at the airport.

Back in Connecticut, Hart, who has visited Playa del Carmen, Cancun, Puerto Morelos, Mexico City, and Los Cabos over the course of the pandemic, said that during her trips to Mexico, on the whole, she also observed social distancing, face coverings, and other pandemic protocols being followed and enforced, both in local and tourist areas, adding that “it wasn’t any worse than what you’d see in the United States”. (The exceptions? She noticed nightclubs were filled with maskless dancers in Playa del Carmen, and, because of the water, that most people were not wearing masks at Cenote Casa Tortuga.)

However, not all tourists are responsible travelers—there are some bad eggs in the bunch. Droves of tourists have flocked to Mexico throughout the pandemic to attend large events like Art With Me, a Burning Man-style festival held in Tulum from November 11-15 last year. The event gathered over 1,000 attendees for a weekend of wellness—and maskless parties. Surprisingly, the event was legally permitted and had no COVID-19 screen processes or regulations—unsurprisingly, it ended up being a super-spreader event.

Notwithstanding is also the consideration that, more often than not, these types of tourists (of which Mexico has a lot) tend to only hang out with themselves. For once, this could actually be a good thing. 

“If tourism is to blame,” said Casey Onate, whose name has been changed to remain anonymous out of respect for their grieving family, “it’s not limited exclusively to American or other foreigners."

Onate’s family recently paid the price for letting their guard down when it came to vacation and COVID-19 protocols. “A group of my family members, who are Mexican, recently traveled domestically from their small town in Central Mexico to the Riviera Maya. They followed regulations, but too loosely—only sometimes wearing a mask in public and not being as diligent as at home," they continued. "A week later, three members of my family who were on that trip tested positive for COVID-19. The following week, one of them died.

While it’s easy to point to tone-deaf events, their equally-tone-deaf attendees, or just outright irresponsible tourists and say they are the cause for Mexico’s current rise in cases, it’s, unfortunately, impossible to conclusively prove. While there may be a strong case, correlation doesn't always mean causation. At the very least, this should serve as a reminder that any travel done during a pandemic should be done responsibly—for both the traveler and the destination—or not be done at all.

Article Sources
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  1. John Hopkins University. "Coronavirus Resource Center." January 8, 2021.

  2. BMJ. "Deaths in Mexico Triple Since Reopening in June." July 9, 2020.

  3. New York Times. "Fleeing Lockdown, Americans Are Fleeing to Mexico City." January 2, 2021.

  4. U.S. Embassy in Mexico. "COVID-19 Related Travel Restrictions across the U.S. Borders with Canada and Mexico." January 8, 2021.

  5. WHO. "Mexico Coronavirus disease dashboard." Retrieved Jan 8, 2021.

  6. VicNews. "Masks now mandatory in all public indoor and retail spaces in B.C." Published Nov. 19, 2020. Retrieved Jan 8, 2021.