Yesterday, Eugenio Barbachano, the tourism minister of Tulum, Mexico, 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 — the family business will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year — and he and his family members have recently been thinking back to other difficult moments. During World War II, there were no visitors, and his great-grandfather gave livestock to his employees to try to turn them into farmers. His grandfather lived through Hurricane Gilbert, in 1988, which destroyed the entire coastline. Then the seaweed came. But this felt worse. “A hurricane comes. It does damage. You assess the damage. Once you assess the damage, you put a number on fixing it. Then you put a time — maybe it’s 30 days, or two months, but you know, within a couple of days after the hurricane, what it’s going to take,” Barbachano said. “With this, what you can’t foresee, or what Trump can’t foresee, or what Dr. Fauci can’t foresee, although he’s trying, is how long this is gonna take. We’re gonna go from a health pandemic to economic pandemonium. We are abiding, but for how long?”
Tourism destinations from Disney World to the Louvre have also been crushed by the pandemic, but Tulum shows the insidious reach of the virus into places that have so far escaped the worst of it. Laid off employees in Tulum would receive some relief from the government, but hospitality workers there get the overwhelming majority of their income from tips, which were no longer coming in. “We empathize with what’s going on in New York and Italy and China,” Barbachano said. “But we — without the virus, essentially — are already suffering economic effects that are equal to if we were a major hot spot.” He compared the situation to Saudi Arabia learning that its oil was contaminated by a virus, and no longer salable. “When Trump says he doesn’t want the cure to be more severe than the illness, I understand him — which is not to say I agree with him — but I understand him,” Barbachano said. Tulum could handle a few months of a downturn, he said, but if the vacancies lasted into the summer, it is impossible to tell how many workers will be out of jobs until the season picks up again at the end of the year.
Mexico has been even slower to adapt to the looming crisis than its northern neighbor, so much so that Human Rights Watch chastised the country’s president on Thursday for “his reckless disregard for providing accurate information on the COVID-19 pandemic.” Mexicans have protested the response, and yesterday, as cases in the country exceeded 1,000, the government finally declared a national emergency. Yet Barbachano said that Quintana Roo, with its dependence on the arrival of Americans, was taking the threat seriously, instituting a curfew and stay-at-home recommendations well before the national government took action. The construction of a new hospital in Tulum has long been delayed — a matter of frustration for locals — but the empty building is now being outfitted as a staging ground for any COVID-19 outbreak. The national emergency shut down all nonessential businesses until May 1, so Barbachano wasn’t suggesting New Yorkers should fly south now. But he hoped they might whenever they started feeling comfortable going through security at JFK again.
The dire turn of events had been especially difficult for Barbachano to stomach given the fact that, by multiple accounts, things had been improving in Tulum. The seaweed had mostly stayed away for the past eight months, and Barbachano felt he was getting a handle on the out-of-control development that had ravaged Tulum in recent years. Many people I spoke to in Tulum last year, turned off by the rampant growth, had wished for some force to come wipe it all away; when I talked last week to one expat living in Tulum, they told me they had been heartened by the progress over the last year, but still thought there might be a silver lining to the outbreak. “The whole planet will be grateful for the break it is being given,” they said. Of course, they were on their way north, to a second home somewhere else.