Riviera Maya Beach Trip: Travel to Mexico, post swine flu

by Chris on August 16, 2010

Swine flu may be so 2009, but occupancy at hotels and resorts in Cancun and the Riviera Maya are still down from last year. The reason could be consumer confidence.

Playa del Carmen, 5th Avenue

I traveled to Mexico this past weekend, as a guest of Hacienda Tres Rios, an award-winning, eco-oriented all-inclusive resort north of Playa del Carmen.

The trip marked my first time back on the Riviera Maya (the stretch of resorts running south of Cancun toward Tulum) since last year’s swine flu warnings did a number of Mexican tourism.

When I arrived last May over Memorial Day 2009, the CDC had just lifted its warning regarding travel to Mexico. Even though the state of Quintana Roo, where Cancun and the Riviera Maya lie, had reported no swine flu cases, tourism had all but dried up. Agents in the Cancun airport wore masks and took our temperature as we deplaned. Hotels in Cancun were at half their normal capacity. Many resorts were forced to lay off workers.

The dearth of tourists did make life easy for those who did brave the flu warnings. Discounts were everywhere, and you had your pick of restaurants and beach beds. Still, you couldn’t help feeling sorry for the Mexican tourism industry, which was still reeling from reports of drug violence in other areas of the country. I’ve heard it time and again from those who rep Mexican properties: every time there’s a report of violence, no matter how far away from the beaten tourist track it may be, bookings suffer.

nightlife, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

On this visit, tourism in Playa del Carmen seemed healthy. The streets were lively, restaurants were happening (we had to wait for an outdoor table at Yax Che). Clubs such as the Blue Parrot that were giving away drinks last time now had covers. For me, Playa became a different type of town.

Still, the resorts in the area are still hurting a bit. Occupancy in Cancun is a few percentage points below last year – which was already down 20% from 2008. Mexican travel expert Kay Walten, who runs the reservation service LocoGringo, blamed it the downturn on the continued lack of consumer confidence. The majority of people just aren’t ready to spend money on international vacations yet, it seems.

Hacienda Tres Rios, Playa del Carmen, Riviera Maya, Mexico

That’s too bad. Because the Riviera Maya continues to be one of the best travel bargains around. The area has everything – easy air access, big resorts, smaller boutique hotels, natural attractions, history – to suit almost every type of traveler. The area is about ready to enter its off-season (which coincides with hurricane season; buy travel insurance if you plan a trip during this time) so expect the bargains to continue.

And it’s certainly not too early to plan for December holidays. When it’s cold and rainy in Seattle, I know Mexico won’t be too far from my thoughts.

Have you been to Mexico lately? If so, I’d love to hear your experiences – tell me where you stayed and if your hotel/resort seemed empty, crowded or – hopefully – just right.

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

TravelDesigned August 16, 2010 at 11:28 pm

We were in Huatulco July 23-30. The hotel had in my opinion, a good occupancy rate. However, it was 90% nationals. This didnt surprise me as there is not much air into Huatulco in the summer. This is a shame because in the summer it is lush and green, in the winter it is dry and more brown. In the winter more international flights are available from Canada and the US.

I agree with Kay, bookings have not rebound yet and continued violence outside tourist areas has not helped consumer confidence either.


David Garber August 16, 2010 at 11:39 pm

Went to Playa Del Carmen the first week of March. It was my first time and I loved it. I don’t like returning to places I’ve been, since there are many places I would love to go, but if I were looking for a beach vacation, I would head back to Playa in a heartbeat.


David Garber August 16, 2010 at 11:40 pm

In fact, I wrote about my stay in Playa. You can read it at notesonacocktailnapkin.com.


Kay Walten August 17, 2010 at 9:38 am

Nice article Chris.
I will say along with consumer confidence, that Stephanie is correct that the media about the violence has not helped matters in re-establishing tourism. However, many people do not realize how big the country of Mexico is. A map of the country would illustrate that the Yucatan is far from the Mexico/US border.


Chris August 17, 2010 at 10:14 am

Stephanie and Kay –

You two have touched upon one of my biggest peeves about Americans. They don’t take the time to understand that Mexico is a big place, with many states. Violence in rural Michoacan is a long way away from the Yucatan (and there’s even places in Michoacan you can go that are absolutely safe). It’s the equivalent of someone saying that they won’t go to New York because there is violence in Detroit. People need to look at maps more often!


Chris (Amateur Traveler) August 17, 2010 at 11:32 am

I was in Mexico 3 times last year. I was in Mexico City and Oaxaca for a week in February, on a press trip to Cozumel in July and in Tijuana on a volunteer trip building houses in September. So I was there before and after the swine flu warnings. Going back to Tijuana was the bigger gut check for me because the week I was there in 2008 was the start of the major drug violence and 50 people were murdered there that week.


Chris August 17, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Chris – The border towns are one area that have really changed in regards to safety. I’ve been to Juarez and Nogales several times, most recently to the latter in 2007 where my husband and I had a great meal at Elvira’s right across the border. I doubt we’d do that again – I’d have to look very hard at the crime statistics before making such plans.


Rachelle August 17, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Great post! I actually traveled to Playa last year as well when they were taking your temperature as you stepped off the plane. I didn’t experience or witness anyone with swine flu … but Mexico was certainly doing what they could to control it. I think the mainstream media blew it (swine flu) out of proportion a bit.


Craig Zabransky August 17, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Chris, I am still repo(a)rt(y)ing live from Playa – I can confirm Saturday was packed and Monday showed great energy and crowds too… I am now off to explore what TravelTuesday night holds.

And also, great to see people understand Mexico is a large diverse nation. In fact it has 31 separate states and a federal capital. Not to mention tremendous diversity in climates, culinary, and culture. Its a magical place.

stay adventurous,


Patrice August 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm

My husband and I went to my first all inclusive this past June, mainly because we got what I thought was a GREAT deal. We went to the Iberostar Grand Hotel Paraiso in the Rivera Maya. We were told that occupancy had been about 50% recently, up from about 20-30% last year. The hotel had enough people to make it a little lively, but wasn’t “crowded”. I have to say that I haven’t previously been a fan of Mexico and all inclusive isn’t usually my thing, but this resort was really really nice…except for the food. They tried to be way to fancy and didn’t execute well on dinner. It was impossible to just get a casual dinner. I would only go again though if I could get the good deal again (which I think is gone now).


Chris August 24, 2010 at 10:13 am

Patrice – That’s one thing I’ve noticed with all-inclusives – they try to be fancy, but just don’t have the expertise to pull it off. Plus it’s hard to really put out great food at the scale of those resorts. I would have rather had some very good simple dishes (and no buffets) as opposed to them trying too hard.


Debbie Ferm September 2, 2010 at 9:35 pm

I agree with the point about all inclusives. In my experience, food seem “watered down” if that makes any sense.

I was in Mexico twice this spring and summer (Acapulco and Riviera Maya), and the hotels seemed somewhat empty. The parks and attractions seemed well attended though.

The latest news of the bomb in Cancun is probably not going to help. I feel bad for the business owners. They just can’t seem to get a break.


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