CANCUN, Mexico – The standing-room-only crowd in the lobby bar at the Fiesta Americana resort was enthralled by a Michael Jackson impersonator dancing on top of the bar after dinner.
The tourists – most of them Americans – danced and shot smartphone videos of the white-gloved performer belting out “Billie Jean” and “Thriller” while they sipped margaritas, martinis, piña coladas and other free drinks.
It was the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus crisis being declared a pandemic. In the USA, President Joe Biden was delivering his first prime-time address, somberly recounting COVID-19’s toll but offering hope of a return to some normalcy by July 4th.
The big-screen TV covering a wall in the bar wasn’t tuned to the news. For these and throngs of other visitors to Cancun this month – or in February in the case of Sen. Ted Cruz – normalcy returned by spring break.
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Nia and Lake Akinkugbe danced at a downtown nightclub and took a sunset cruise to Isla Mujeres during their four-night visit from Virginia. Nia’s a full-time student in interdisciplinary studies at George Mason University, which, like many colleges, canceled spring break this year, but that didn’t stop them. Her mother watched their three kids, ages 2 to 15.
“My husband and I decided, look, we still need to have some sort of mental health break,” she said. “So we decided, hey, we’re still going to go.”
Dallas Farnham and her teenage daughter, Katie Lynn Wills, were on a Carnival cruise in Mexico a year ago that was cut short by the coronavirus crisis. They wanted a do-over, so they flew to Cancun with family members for spring break this year.
“We got bored and wanted to go on a trip,” Wills said as she helped dig her brother’s 22-year-old girlfriend out of the sand, where they had buried her up to her neck and etched RIP for fun beach photos.
The family from Brandon, Mississippi, swam with dolphins on Isla Mujeres and went deep-sea fishing.
“They take (COVID-19) more seriously here,” Farnham said. “We’re already talking about coming back in July.’’
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Cancun is a perennial spring break hot spot – TripAdvisor declared it the “international capital of spring break” in normal times. It has sparkling white sand beaches and water the color of Cool Mint Listerine, resorts for every budget and activities and day trips galore.
This year is not normal, of course, but like many beach and outdoor destinations, Cancun is seeing a spike in visitors as vaccinated vacationers and those with pandemic fatigue book getaways despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice not to travel – even if they are vaccinated – and COVID-19 cases and deaths.
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Cancun’s tourism board projects 300,000 visitors from the USA in March based on results so far and reservations for the next two weeks. That’s more than the 222,731 in March 2020 when the pandemic took hold but below pre-pandemic visitation of 464,569 in March 2019.
Mexico is one of the few international vacation spots open to Americans, and unlike other tropical destinations, including Hawaii and several Caribbean islands, has no entry restrictions such as quarantines or proof of a negative coronavirus test. The land border between the USA and Mexico is closed to nonessential travel, but flights are allowed.
Travelers flying to the USA have to provide a negative test taken no more than three days before their flight home as of Jan. 26, a new wrinkle that hurt bookings this year before hotels started offering on-site testing, often free, to lure visitors.
Cesar Fallardi, director of operations for The Grand at Moon Palace, said business has been up and down since the 1,300-room luxury resort reopened in early June after a two-month closure. It offered promotions, including a buy-one-week-get-one-free offer, and touted its COVID-19 protocols at every turn.
The hotel reopened with 20% occupancy but struggled to fill rooms as coronavirus case counts rose in key markets, including the USA, sparking cancellations and rebookings.
“It was like 15% (occupancy) and then 12% and then 10% and then 8%,” he said.
Bookings stabilized during the fall and have been on the upswing since the holiday season, he said. The hotel’s beachfront Coco Bar serves as many as 400 complimentary drinks a day in souvenir coconuts, back to pre-pandemic levels. And it’s open only a few hours a day.
USA TODAY travel reporter Dawn Gilbertson traveled to Cancun, Mexico, to see how the coronavirus pandemic has changed spring break for 2021.
Staff Video, USA TODAY
In the last week of February, Fallardi said, bookings were higher than the same period in 2019, and the trend is expected to continue.
“It’s quite, quite good,” he said.
U.S. airlines see strength in Mexico, too. American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said last week that there’s been “a nice uptick of late” in bookings for short international flights. JetBlue Airways CEO Robin Hayes said bookings to international beach destinations have rebounded from the hit they took when the new CDC testing requirement for U.S.-bound international flights was announced Jan. 12. Southwest Airlines reported strong demand for its nonstop flights from Phoenix to Cancun, which launched March 11.
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Airlines responded by adding back flights. There are 5,863 fights scheduled between the USA and Cancun in March, the highest level since March 2020, when there were 6,042, according to global aviation data firm Cirium. There were 6,198 flights in March 2019. The number of flights hit a pandemic low of 340 in May 2020.
Travelers shopping for vacation packages have found deals as airlines and hotels woo pandemic vacationers, though how long they will last is unclear, given pent-up travel demand.
Indianapolis nurse Harmony Godsey, who is vaccinated, and five friends paid about $850 per person for a round-trip flight, oceanfront room for four nights and all meals and alcoholic beverages.
They toasted her 40th birthday at the pool bar with vodka waters in personalized bottles. Godsey had always hoped for an exotic birthday getaway with friends but figured it would be too pricey.
“It really was only able to happen, honestly, because of COVID for it being so inexpensive,” she said.
Signs of a travel resurgence abound in Cancun despite the lack of college students and visitors from some countries, including Canada, this spring break. As of mid-March, it is far from overrun by rowdy tourists.
“Normally this time of year, it would be spring breakers everywhere,” Nia Akinkugbe said. “It’s getting there, but it’s not like it was.”
Competition for pool chairs is back at many resorts, where hotel guests plop down towels, T-shirts, books and even a sand shovel before breakfast to save a spot. Any social distancing attempts are short-lived as hotels get fuller.
But empty beach loungers are a frequent sight on any walk along the beach.
The Elvis Presley, Bob Marley and other musician-themed cabanas at the Hard Rock Hotel in the beachfront hotel zone were nearly all booked Saturday, the rows of lounge chairs in front of them filled with sunbathers.
Elsewhere along the beachfront strip, plenty of cabanas and day beds sat unused, and beachgoers had little problem social distancing.
Señor Frog’s, the popular tourist chain where a sign on the ceiling boasts “College: The only time during which being poor and drunk is acceptable,“ was predictably packed on Friday night. A balloon artist named Titico hopped from table to table for tips, and a waitress persuasively peddled tequila shots to a pair of corrections officers from Long Island. Yard-size neon souvenir glasses filled with Dos Equis were in high demand. Sales are up 40% from pre-pandemic levels because of a new location, safety measures and new entertainment, according to Carlos Castro, director of marketing for the chain’s parent company.
Champions Sports Bar at the Marriott Cancun had only a handful of customers, two of them airline pilots on layovers, when the NCCA announced its college basketball tournament lineup.
The beaches in the hotel zone looked nothing like the packed South Florida beaches that have drawn scorn from Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, though rough waves and high winds may have played a role. Miami Beach declared a state of emergency in its entertainment district.
The beach outside the Mandala Beach Club and Cielo Beach Club in downtown Cancun was hopping on Friday night before sunset, social distancing largely ignored and mask use, which is not required on the beach, sparse.
Aquaworld, a water playground offering jungle tours, jet skis, parasailing, sunset cruises and other activities, saw a 25% increase in reservations last week after a “terrible” February under the CDC testing requirement, according to commercial director Carlos Frias.
“We are very happy to have these numbers,” he said.
The attraction in the touristy hotel zone had 350 daily visitors last weekend, down from 500 during the holidays but more than double February figures. A year ago daily customers topped 1,200.
Depending when you visit, you might have the place largely to yourself. Autumn Davis, 26, and her sister, Rhianna, 23, booked a session on Aquaworld’s inflatable obstacle course before they left Philadelphia. It was across the street from their hotel.
Sunday morning, they were the only ones in the water.
“I was expecting 5 million kids,” Rhianna said.
Ada Washington and Cedric Henderson, visiting Cancun with their 13-month-old son, Kendrick, to celebrate her birthday and their virtual wedding in January, were surprised by the number of people at their resort. (The government just raised occupancy limits for hotels in Cancun to 60% as the state moved into a less-restrictive COVID-19 tier.) Except for a move in June from the Bronx in New York City to Maryland to start a trucking business after losing their jobs, they have stuck close to home during the pandemic.
“I was not expecting this at all,” said Washington, a former hotel manager.
She and her husband, who didn’t tell relatives and friends they were going on vacation until the last minute, said they found the numbers oddly reassuring.
“It doesn’t put any fear in my heart,” Washington said. “It kind of brings me comfort in a way, like OK, I guess everybody has my same change of heart, like, you know what, let’s just do that (trip).”
“It made it seem like life is normal,” Henderson said.
Cancun, like all tourism-dependent destinations eager to bring visitors back, touts COVID-19 safety protocols such as cleaning, social distancing and masks, and so do hotels, Cancun International Airport, restaurants and attractions such as Aquaworld.
The tourism website brags about Cancun being the first destination in Latin America to receive the “Safe Travels” global safety stamp of approval from the World Travel and Tourism Council.
As in the USA, social distancing stickers and mask reminders are everywhere, hand sanitizer stations ubiquitous. Temperature checks are common.
How is tourist compliance?
It depends where you are and whom you ask.
Masks are generally not required on the beach or at hotel pools except when walking around. Ditto for inside dining at restaurants, bars and buffets.
Bailey Burgess, 25, a vaccinated intensive care unit nurse from Oklahoma City, wore her mask religiously, even when not required, on her visit to Cancun this month. The one time she forgot to put it on when she got up from her pool chair, she was impressed that a hotel worker in a mask and face shield flagged her.
“He was like, ‘Next time can you wear a mask please?’ ” she said.
Her reply: “Yes, I’m so sorry. Thank you.”
What she wasn’t impressed by: the lack of mask wearing by some fellow travelers.
“I’ve seen a lot of drunk people go up to these bars and not have their masks, and I’ve seen workers get very upset about it, but not to them,” she said. “Think how many people they see.”
Jody Brumble, a vaccinated nurse from Duluth, Minnesota, said hotel employees are “doing the best they can” to enforce mask requirements but face pushback from vacationers who question why they can eat in a restaurant or lie by a crowded pool without a mask but have to put it on to walk around – a question common at home, too.
“You can tell the longer people have been here, they’re kind of over it, and they’re like, ‘This is stupid. I just didn’t have it on there and now you want me to wear it right here,'” he said.
Moon Palace executive Fallardi said most visitors respect the COVID-19 protocols.
“I think that 99.9% of the people behave in a good way,” he said.
Despite the mask issues, Burgess said, the most stressful part of her first trip in more than a year was the full Southwest Airlines flights.
“I was just thinking how packed we were like sardines,” she said.
She and her boyfriend, fellow ICU nurse Gabe Johnson, 26, have no regrets about the trip to Cancun, where they parasailed, snorkeled on a jungle tour and toasted their one-year anniversary with margaritas on a sunset cruise. They decided to go on vacation in a pandemic, with the support of co-workers and family members, after a stressful, heartbreaking year at their hospital.
“I’m so over it. I just needed a mental break,” she said. “I just wanted to go somewhere.”
Coming next week: Coronavirus testing in Mexico: What travelers need to know