TORONTO — When it comes to powerhouse destinations, the state of Quintana Roo in Mexico can be considered among the top of the list.
Home to such iconic and mega-popular destinations as Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Riviera Maya, this 50,000-square-kilometre stretch of powdery coastline on the Yucatán Peninsula, also known as the Mexican Caribbean, has long been regarded by Canadian couples, families and other leisure travellers as a must-visit destination. In 2019, a total of 1,222,361 Canadians paid a visit to its shores in search of sun-kissed beaches, delicious cuisine and ancient Mayan traditions.
But then the global pandemic hit in March 2020, grounding global travel to a full stop. Suddenly, the powerhouse destination – like all destinations around the world – faced border closures, lockdown measures and flight cancellations nearly overnight. With the entire 2020 season up in the air questions like, just how quickly could the tourism sector recover and what will the new normal look like for tourists, became top of mind.
As it turns out, thanks to a robust testing program, comprehensive health and safety protocols and an extremely loyal fan base, particularly from Canada, Quintana Roo was able to make its first steps towards recovery far quicker than other top tourist destinations. By June, Air Canada had resumed service to Cancun and by July 1, 75% of the region’s hotels had reopened to tourists. Airlift into the destination continued to ramp up, with WestJet, Sunwing and Transat all adding flights from Calgary, Toronto and Montreal by winter.
While other Caribbean destinations continued to remain closed or struggled with little to no airlift and restrictive measures, Quintana Roo was seeing decent arrival numbers, all things considering. From June to December 2020, the state recorded a respectable 53,224 Canadian arrivals; it finished the year with 492,383 Canadians from January to December. In total, across all markets, Quintana Roo welcomed over six million tourists in 2020, approximately 52% less than 2019. Even more importantly, between June and November Quintana Roo reported no rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in the region, a testament to its hard-line approach to health and safety.
Momentum was going strong heading into 2021 until Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Jan. 29 the cancellation of all sun destination flights through April 30, 2021, for all four of Canada’s major airlines – Air Canada, WestJet, Sunwing and Transat – as part of ongoing efforts to contain the spread of concerning new variants of COVID-19.
The news came as a major blow to Quintana Roo, which relies heavily on Canada as its #2 international market. Prior to the Prime Minister’s announcement, Dario Flota Ocampo, director of the Quintana Roo Tourism Board, tells Travelweek that the state was expecting an “upward trajectory in Canadian arrivals as one of the most popular destinations for visitors, especially during spring break dates and Valentine’s Day weekend.” But rather than stewing in the news, Flota Ocampo adds that the destination is taking this downtime to work even harder in preparation for the return of Canadians.
“During this time of the aftermath, we are carefully planning with our hotels and local providers so that once travellers can return, the Mexican Caribbean is ready and open to welcome them back. We are always working in tandem with our Canadian partners to ensure travellers feel comfortable and prepared,” he says.
With the April 30 resumption date coming up fast, and vaccination programs being rolled out in both Canada and Mexico, momentum from Canada will almost certainly pick up again. Here’s what Flota had to say about travel forecasts and the importance of the Canadian market:
How’s your vaccination rollout going? And with vaccinations ramping up, what kind of year are you anticipating in terms of tourism?
The vaccination in the state is moving forward according to the federal vaccination rollout plan. In Quintana Roo, the second doses for medical personnel are being administered, and the vaccine rollout is now being expanded to include people over 60.
I believe we will definitely see the return of older travellres and travellers who have been vaccinated. Guests are eager to return and enjoy the beach and open spaces after having been at home. It’s too soon to anticipate the numbers we will be seeing but travellers are still more cautious in comparison to 2019.
There’s a lot of talk about vaccination passports and whether travellers should be required to be fully vaccinated before stepping foot on a plane. What’s your opinion on the matter?
I believe that the vaccination process will create trust in potential travellers as they will feel protected and will seek the rest that they have been looking for during this time. Although I do think the security measures will continue to be implemented for some time after the vaccine, just to make sure that we eradicate all probability to catch the virus.
As countries roll out their vaccination programs, we could see more destinations establish travel bubbles, like the one created by Israel and Greece. Do you think this could ever be possible between Canada and Mexico?
I think this would be something feasible. Both countries have great air connectivity and are within a short travelling distance, which is something that travellers are looking for. The Mexican Caribbean is also one of the safest destinations at the moment, thanks to its tourist infrastructure and services, which make it a suitable option for this kind of alliance.
How closely are you working with Canada’s airlines in preparation of their resumption of flights on April 30?
As Cancun International Airport receives some of the highest traffic from Canadian travellers, we continue to be in close communication with Canada’s airlines to safely resume flights and manage any doubts or issues. We are constantly updating our partners with the latest protocols and news from our destinations.
With sun flights being cancelled from Canada, are you seeing an uptick in Canadians travelling to Mexico via U.S. airlines?
Travellers who already had a plan to visit our destinations are more likely to change their travel plans to arrive via alternative routes and as a result of this, we are still welcoming Canadian travellers.
Canada has some of the most stringent travel restrictions in the world. What’s your opinion on Canada’s approach since, ultimately, it will impact tourist arrivals in Mexico?
We are hopeful that in the near future these restrictions will lessen while our destinations continue to adapt and improve the protocols that are in place in order to keep all our visitors safe. This market is vital to us so we are working tirelessly to resume flights between Canada and the Mexican Caribbean as soon as possible.
For more information about travel to Quintana Roo go to https://www.mexicancaribbean.travel/.