Mexico's hottest hotel perks: Covid tests and free quarantine
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By Alejandro Castro with Jean Arce in Mexico City
Never mind the unlimited food and drink, the latest all-inclusive hotel perks tempting tourists to pandemic-hit Mexico are free Covid-19 tests and extended stays for anyone who catches the coronavirus.
It was enough to persuade Natalia Garzon, a 38-year-old Colombian living in the United States, to jet off to the Caribbean resort of Cancun for a weekend.
"You can catch the virus anywhere. If they don't let us get on the plane home, then we'll stay here," she said as she walked along an uncrowded, sun-kissed beach.
Demands by the United States and other countries for a negative Covid-19 test result before flying was a major blow to Mexico's efforts to win back tourists.
But many hotels have since turned it to their advantage by offering on-site testing and heavily discounted, or even free accommodation in the event of a positive result.
The only catch- you have to stay in quarantine. The Mexican economy, the second-largest in Latin America, is heavily reliant on tourism.
Last year the pandemic meant it lost 20 million visitors, a drop of 45%, at a cost of $13 billion (R191 billion) to the sector, according to Tourism Minister Miguel Torruco.
With around 175 000 Covid-19 deaths and roughly two million known cases, Mexico is one of the nations hardest hit by the pandemic.
But it is also one of the few major tourist destinations not to close its borders or demand a negative coronavirus test result on arrival.
That helped to elevate it from seventh to the third most visited country last year.
The industry suffered a new setback last month when Canada suspended its flights to the Mexican Caribbean.
In an attempt to woo travellers from other countries, Mexican hoteliers came up with pandemic-era perks that give a whole new meaning to the all-inclusive concept.
"It costs less than an advertisement" and "makes the business viable," said Jose Manuel Lopez, president of the services and tourism confederation Concanaco-Servytur.
Mexico's government and businesses are now considering including the cost of PCR tests in all tourist packages.
Testing is already available in the Mexico City and Cancun airports
and there are plans to expand the service to other tourist hotspots.
More than half of the 1 129 hotels along Mexico's Riviera Maya stretch of Caribbean coast now offer the Covid-19 facilities, according to the regional authorities.
In an event room at the Omni Cancun hotel, guests can choose between a PCR test for $100 (R1 468) or a rapid test at no cost.
They are greeted by a doctor wearing personal protective equipment for a swab, one of thousands of such tests being carried out each day in Cancun. Anyone who gets a positive result is taken to one of five rooms designated for quarantine for up to 14 days at five percent of the usual price. Some hotel chains, such as Palace Resorts, even offer it for free.
The Omni Cancun's isolation area has a separate entrance and access for ambulances.
Employees in protective suits will leave three meals a day at the door along with bedsheets, but the guest must clean the room.
So far they have not been needed, according to the management. Instead, guests lounge by the pools, sunbathing to the rhythm of salsa, while others relax on the beach or sip cocktails.
Bartender Javier Pat said he fears "hunger" more than the virus.
"If tourists stop coming, we don't work, that's why we make sure they enjoy their stay," he said.