Mayan Peninsula in the Midst of COVID-19

Published 11/06/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Hanah Jun | 11/06/2022

The Yucatán peninsula is a key case study of the struggle in choosing between economic and public health. This paper explores the intersection of public health, regional economics, and global market development as it relates to the Yucatán peninsula. More specifically, this paper will investigate the intersection of the Yucatán peninsula’s regional economy and the impact of COVID.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the extent to which disparities in privilege exist across the globe. Complex, large, and diversified economies such as the United States were less affected and featured a quick recovery with the introduction of vaccines. Other countries were hit much harder, particularly countries dependent on foreign tourism. The countries in the latter category faced extremely difficult decisions about how to keep their economies alive while ensuring that COVID-19 was kept under control. Countries that depended heavily upon foreign tourism as the primary source of revenue were often pressured to sacrifice public safety in exchange for economic well-being.

Tourism plays an extremely large role in Mexico’s economy, and its importance has only been growing over time. The tourism industry is the third largest contributor to Mexico’s GDP (Gilbert & Rosenberg 2010). Its contribution to Mexico’s GDP has nearly doubled in the past two decades, from about 5% in the early 2000s to about 9% in 2019 (López 2021). Cancún and the 

Mayan Peninsula combined represent the most visited travel destination in Mexico by number of arrivals, followed closely by Mexico City (López 2020). In addition to the direct increase in economic activity caused by tourism, tourism also has significant spillover effects on local economies. Tourism along Mexico’s coastline has been found to increase the average Mexican household’s income by over 4%; a 10% increase in tourism spending increases employment by almost 3%, from increases in direct tourism-related employment as well as increased manufacturing to support additional demand from tourism (Faber & Gaubert 2018).

This is not to ignore the harmful effects of tourism, particularly the exploitative nature of tourism in developing countries on locals as well as the environment. In particular, most of the profits from tourism tend to “[accrue] to multinational corporations rather than local businesses” (DePillis 2016). However, particularly due to its spillover effects, tourism has generally had a net positive impact on the Mexican economy.

These figures have been drastically affected by the pandemic, however. According to a local tour guide in Tulúm, flights to the Cancún and Yucatán peninsula regions have shrunk to less than 20% of pre-COVID figures. Specifically, flights have shrunk from about 300 flights a day to the region, to only 50 flights a day. The region sees the largest numbers of visitors from the United States, followed by Canada and Argentina (SEGOB 2021). However, Canadians and Argentinians, which represent the second and third largest population segments of visitors, have not been able to travel to the region during the pandemic, and the number of visitors from the United States has shrunk considerably as well, from over 10 million visitors to Mexico pre-pandemic to less than 2.5 million visitors in 2020 (SEGOB 2021).

This has had a significant impact on the economy. As locals described, the region has become enormously dependent on the government during the pandemic, which provided food, 

packages and supplies, but only minimally. The minimum pension in Mexico is just about $4.40 USD per day, which comes out to less than $2,000 a year (McKenzie 2021). The tour guide we encountered was forced to come out of retirement due to this low wage, which has been a problem for decades but has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The economic dependence on tourism has been recognized by the Mexican government, which has not restricted air travel throughout the pandemic. The country uses a color-based system to indicate COVID-19 risk, with red counties designated as posing the highest risk for COVID, followed by orange, then yellow, and green for the lowest risk (Mexico Government 2021). Most of the coastal regions of Mexico, including the Yucatán peninsula, have been designated as orange zones, although some locals we encountered have questioned the legitimacy of that rating given the high numbers of foreign visitors in the region and ultra-rapid COVID-19 testing facilities infamous in some areas for returning tests in under five minutes for a fee.

Tensions between travelers and locals are high, yet represent complicated dynamics intertwined with history and geopolitics. In particular, foreign property owners living in Mexico, who are typically much wealthier than the average local, have spoken against the loose COVID restrictions imposed by the government citing public health concerns, whereas local businesses are suffering from the lack of activity in the region (Frye 2021). Residents have very mixed feelings about the economic and public health situation. Most locals feel as though they have no choice in the matter, as they rely on the privilege of foreign visitors for their survival while those same visitors may endanger their survival through viral exposure.

This is exacerbated by the lack of quarantine and testing requirements for tourists throughout the pandemic. Visitors from the U.S. were not required to be tested before or upon arriving, nor was there an enforced quarantine period. The region has faced these consequences 

head on, with Mexico logging over 230,000 deaths from COVID (Johns Hopkins 2021), as well as significant declines to mental health and increases in substance use found in many countries through the pandemic (Milken Institute 2020). Most locals we spoke to, despite the health risk, have expressed gratitude at the foreign dollars that have been flowing in throughout the pandemic, as there is little reliance on the government for support. On the other hand, a local constituency of a similar size shares the same sentiments as Gary Puckrein via the Milken Institute, who states that the first duty of the government is to preserve life, and that the government must “execute a plan that fosters a vibrant business community while making sure that its economic policies do not elevate the risk for a shortened or poor quality of life for those whom it governs” (Puckrein 2020). Members of the community share very different opinions on how to strike the right balance of life and liberty throughout the pandemic, however.

It is hard to tell what the solutions are to such complex problems. Most countries in the world have dealt with this to some degree, but Mexico has been particularly vulnerable to its dependence on tourism. Some residents find optimism in future increased demand for leisure tourism in the coming months and years, particularly as vaccination rates increase in countries that have provided the greatest numbers of visitors in the past and within the country as well. This is one area in which the United States may play a tangible role: providing more vaccines to our southern neighbor beyond border cities, a minimal step considering visitors from the U.S. continue to put residents at risk by visiting while unvaccinated (Associated Press 2021). Steps that Mexico could take face heated debate from all sides, and initiatives related to fiscal support are deeply rooted in issues of geopolitics and corruption within the country. These problems were part of the reason why government support was so limited before and throughout the pandemic.

Beyond the tensions of the health crisis and economic stagnation, however, an aura of hope was tangible in the region, derived from increasing numbers of visitors and the improving COVID-19 situation on the peninsula. It is no longer only tourists who are itching for more activity on the Yucatán peninsula. Vendors, hosts, tour guides and all of the staff that serve as the backbone of the tourism industry are enthusiastic about the future of the region, as demand has started to rise and is perceived to rise to unprecedented levels in the coming years.  




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