Is it safe to travel to Mexico for spring break?

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By Alfredo Corchado, Imelda García and Valeria Olivares The Dallas Morning News (TNS)

EL ROSARIO, Michoacan — Is it safe to travel to Mexico for Spring Break?

As fears over the spread of the coronavirus widen in the U.S., Mexico beckons with beaches, butterflies, and bargains — hoping American tourists won’t cancel long-planned trips anytime soon.

Officials know things could change overnight, but for now they just urge caution.

There are currently no restrictions in place as a result of the worldwide outbreak. The U.S. State Department has maintained its Level 1 travel advisory—exercise normal precautions—for most of Mexico. A seventh case of coronavirus was reported Monday, but there have not been any confirmed fatalities as of Tuesday.

No border screening measures at ports of entry have been implemented. Travelers to Mexico do not require any additional documentation to enter or exit beyond standard travel requirements. Health advice for travelers seeking information is available at ports of entry.

Gloria Guevara, head of the World Travel and Tourism Council urged tourists to remain calm, make sure the information they’re consuming is vetted and “avoid unnecessary panic.”

She did add that the tourism council has moved its upcoming April meeting in Cancun to October “out of solidarity with what is happening in Europe and North America,” stressing that Cancun hasn’t reported any cases of coronavirus.

For now, tourism officials hope Americans will brush aside fears and escape the nonstop virus updates back home and head to Mexico to relax, particularly in this region still filled with millions of monarch butterflies getting ready to leave their winter sanctuary and head north.

Mexico’s white sandy beaches, a sophisticated capital city with avenues filled with purple jacarandas and colonial towns with an uncommon beauty and a sea of butterflies has long made Mexico one of the top foreign destinations for Americans, particularly Texans.

“We’re surrounded by monarch butterflies and the blessings of mother nature. We hope Americans take that into account before canceling their travel plans,” said Martin G. Arriaga Padilla, tourism minister in Angangueo, near the butterfly sanctuary. “All we need is more tourists.”

One American who heeded the call was Betsy Johnson, 76 of Tucson, Ariz.

“I haven’t thought much about coronavirus since I arrived here,” she said, relieved to be away from the nonstop news blaring dire warnings. She traveled with her daughter Lisa from Ann Arbor, Mich., and a tour group to pay homage to the butterflies who will head to North America, with a stop in Texas, by the end of the month.

“I’d tell you what, I’d stay out of the state of Washington, where I have friends, before I’d get out of Mexico,” she added.

Francisco de la Torre, Consul General of the Mexican consulate in Dallas, said, “We do not see or have knowledge yet, of a direct impact of the COVID in the tourism from Texas to Mexico, including airline figures and room occupancy. Spring breakers are always welcome and we suggest they follow statements from health authorities on both sides of the border.”

So far, there are no reports of flight cancellations.

Southwest Airlines said it hasn’t cancelled or suspended any flights to Mexico due to the current COVID-19 situation.

“None of the 102 destinations that Southwest serves are currently listed as geographic risks by the CDC,” said Brian Parrish, spokesman for the airline.

Roughly 500 Mexico-bound flights leave each week from the U.S. bound for popular tourist destinations like Cancun, Mexico City, Monterrey, Guadalajara, San Jose del Cabo and Cozumel, Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco.

For now, the coronavirus does not appear to be a widespread problem. A 71-year-old man in the State of Mexico, who recently traveled to northern Italy and contracted the coronavirus is making a slow recovery. An additional two confirmed cases are in Mexico City, as well as cases in the states of Chiapas, Sinaloa and Coahuila.

An estimated 44 million international tourists visited Mexico last year. Tourism is key to Mexico’s economy.

But in addition to the persistent concerns in some regions about drug violence, Mexico has long weathered plenty of natural and manmade disasters from hurricanes and major earthquakes to the H1N1 virus outbreak a few years ago.

The country is already in a recession, an alluring consideration for tourists. Mexico’s currency fell 5.31% against the dollar on Monday, closing at 21.40, over fears of the coronavirus and a steep drop in crude oil prices. This means the almighty dollar buys more. Bargains abound.

In recent days, several Mexican airlines – Aeromexico, Interjet and Volaris — have slashed prices by as much as 80% off in the hopes of luring travelers. Authorities are also worried about losing money when cruise ships don’t dock in Mexico because of virus fears.

Generations of spring breakers from colleges across the U.S. have made Cancun their top vacation pick in Mexico. They also flock to stunning beaches and resorts at Cancun, the Maya Riviera, and Cabo.

At the University of Texas at El Paso, some students preparing for the annual rite of spring break admitted they’re nervous.

“I worry about flying and being at the airport now that the coronavirus is around because one doesn’t know how people are taking care of themselves,” said Sabrina Fernandez, 23, a student majoring in theater technology and design, who is traveling to Mexico City, a city that “doesn’t scare me because it’s not yet within risk level two or three and, while it remains level one, I feel safe.”

But because the virus is spreading fast, she worries that if the threat level rises fast, she “wouldn’t be allowed back into the university until after 14 days.”

Fernandez plans to buy a “face mask to use while at the airports and in public places where I know lots of people will be at.”

Her friend and traveling companion, Julia Garcia, 23, majoring in general management, said she’ll be extra cautious, “I’ll be washing my hands anytime I’m able to, try not to touch anything, if necessary, carry gloves and stay away from people who are coughing and sneezing.”

In Mexico City, tour guides and some of the tourists downplay coronavirus concerns.

“I don’t worry about Spring Breakers not ever coming,” said Yolanda Perez Martinez, a bus tour guide with Capital Bus tours in Mexico City. “The young ones are fearless, always looking for bargains, and have so much energy and curiosity.”

Jake Hamilton, 20, a student from the University of Wisconsin, sat outside a street restaurant in Mexico City on Monday night, sipping mezcal and tequila, with jacarandas in full bloom and a full moon above.

“I’m trying to convince myself that agave will kill the coronavirus,” he said, then asked for another shot. “It’s so dope,” he said.

Some pharmacies in Mexico City and Michoacan have been cleaned out of hand sanitizers, masks and gloves, much like in the U.S. Many of the pharmacies here offer in-house physicians at no cost, a standard practice. Doctors check vitals and write prescriptions, or in potentially serious cases, contact hospitals and ambulances.

“I have many patients who walk in just to get checkups, to be on the safe side,” said Dr. Miriam Navarro Hernandez. “At this point there is no outbreak,” she said, knocking on wood.

The Mexican Ministry of Health offers updates on the number of cases daily in Spanish. The ministry also created a hot line to request COVID-19 information or medical attention, again in Spanish, at 800 0044 800.

Back in Michoacan, the state has already been hard hit by organized crime, including the killing of two high profile individuals tied to the butterfly industry. The U.S. Embassy has issued a level 4 travel warning for the state of Michoacan because of increasing violence, something that tourism industry officials scoff at.

“No tourist has ever been targeted,” said Joel Moreno of JMB&B Airbnb. “They would target me first before they go after a tourist. That’s for sure.”

Many think painting the whole state as dangerous because of targeted organized crime is wrong.

“It’s like when something bad happens in one Texas city and suddenly the entire state of Texas is dangerous,” said Marc Span, co-owner of Hotel Rancho San Cayetano in Zitacuaro. “That’s just not fair because Michoacan is also one big state.”

At an outdoor livestock market, Eliel Garcia Lopez describes the coronavirus as just another government distraction from the sputtering economy. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “Just paranoia.”

His brother Joaquin Garcia Lopez flew back home to Michoacan from Seattle, which has been hit hard by an outbreak of the virus, on March 3.

“Eliel, I wouldn’t be so sure,” he told his brother. “The airport in Seattle was practically empty as was my flight. There’s something going on.”

“What if you have this virus? Stay away from me,” Eliel joked.

“Tequila will kill it,” Joaquin responded. The brothers laughed nervously.

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(Alfredo Corchado reported from Mexico, Imelda García reported from Dallas and freelance journalist Valeria Olivares reported from El Paso, Texas.)
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