Eugenio Barbachano, the tourism minister of Tulum, Quintana Roo, which has served as one of wealthy New York’s winter escapes for much of the past decade, was staring at empty sand. Barbachano was self-isolating in his home on the beach, which would normally be crowded with New Yorkers and Europeans but was now more or less vacant, save for a handful of families that had flown down to quarantine in the sun.
Rich New Yorkers were renting houses upstate, or making their first pre–Memorial Day trips to their homes in Amagansett, but they had mostly ditched Tulum. “It’s like arriving in Tulum in the 1960s,” Barbachano said of the scene today.
A year ago, I wrote an article documenting the ills that overtourism had brought to the previously quiet beach town on Mexico’s Caribbean coast: environmental degradation, disrespectful DJs, drugs. Put simply, too many people. And an influx of seaweed had washed up from far offshore, muddying its turquoise blue waters, which Barbachano and others saw as a silent, existential threat to Tulum’s reputation.
COVID-19 was a new kind of quiet disaster. As of Monday, there were only two cases in Tulum, both from foreign visitors, which meant that “community spread” had not taken place. And yet COVID-19 had been devastating. “Even without community spread, we’re already in a situation of economic lockdown,” Barbachano said. In mid-March, in the heart of Tulum’s winter-into-spring season, hotels along the beach road were near full capacity; now, occupancy rates were at 10 percent, and dropping.
Travelers rushed back home when the U.S. and other governments began instituting travel bans, or canceled trips before they arrived. Since then, 30 of the 100 hotels on the beach had closed altogether, and Barbachano expected most would do so by the end of the month. He cited an old saying in Mexico that now had an even more ominous tenor: “When the U.S. coughs, Mexico gets pneumonia.”
Barbachano comes from one of the oldest families in Mexican tourism…
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