Over the New Year’s holiday, thousands of photos of people partying in Tulum, Mexico took over Instagram. American tourists, many of them influencers, flocked to the picturesque beach town to enjoy their New Year’s celebration. The issue with that, of course, is the global pandemic that’s currently raging in a vicious second wave. Others on social media spoke out against this kind of travel in this situation. The opposing viewpoints lead to an ongoing social media standoff all about Tulum, Mexico.
The Tulum Hype
Tulum is a beautiful coastal town, just an hour and a half south of Cancún. It boasts gorgeous beaches for those who like to relax, and incredible Mayan ruins for those who like to explore. By all accounts, it is a truly wonderful travel destination.
If you look up Tulum, Mexico on Instagram, you’ll find pages and pages of beautiful photos of white sand beaches and people in bikinis without a care in the world. Right now, most of this content comes from photos of the winter holidays. At least ten people I follow on Instagram traveled from the US, most from the Los Angeles area, to go to Mexico in late December and early January. These posts convey lighthearted, careless freedom that, for some, struck a seriously tone-deaf note in light of current events.
Looking at these social media posts from carefree Mexico vacations, it would be easy to imagine there is no pandemic going on at all. Not only are people traveling down to Tulum, but once they get there, the tequila comes out and the masks come off.
These screenshots of videos posted to Instagram show a New Year’s party with a big crowd and a live DJ. The crowd is packed in and dancing. Not a single party-goer is wearing a mask. None of them appear to have face coverings readily available at all. There are six inches of distance between bodies as opposed to six feet. By any definition, this party is a potential super spreader event.
The COVID-19 Risk
Even those who don’t go to big parties are still potentially transporting COVID-19 to a country where local citizens are at a significant disadvantage—many of whom are service workers in resorts and restaurants. There are ample opportunities through travel to contract or spread the disease regardless of whether travelers had a negative test result prior to their departure. Hotel staff, airline staff, and locals are all vulnerable to the exposure American travelers bring with them.
Early in December, the CDC issued a warning against traveling to Mexico as cases continued to rise in the area and hospitals started to get overwhelmed. The warning went largely unheeded.
The Mexican economy, especially in areas like Tulum, Cancun, and Cabo, is heavily dependent on tourism. It’s easy to say that, by traveling, tourists are helping keep the struggling hospitality industry afloat. The problem is that these travelers are not giving a single thought to the people folding their towels and delivering their room service. There is no consideration as to what their excellent beach vacation in Tulum might mean. At least, that’s how the argument is playing out on social media.
For every person posting pictures of their fabulous beach vacation, there is an angry responder stuck at home and furious about the potential consequences for all of us. People are calling out white celebrities, influencers, and travelers for going to struggling countries and exposing all kinds of vulnerable workers.
Singer Dua Lipa posted several pictures of herself in Tulum on Monday. Her post sparked a renewed conversation on whether traveling right now is responsible, especially for someone with a significant platform. Fans defended the singer, saying she isn’t breaking any rules. Critics, however, slammed the star for endangering staff and prioritizing vacation over basic compassion.
It’s not just Tulum. There are many tropical travel destinations that are experiencing spikes. Cases are on the rise in all of Mexico. This is in no small part due to cases coming from Cancún, Tulum, and Cabo San Lucas. There is a clear spike right around the time people would start testing positive for cases spread around the New Years’ holiday. A similar pattern is emerging in Miami, where COVID-19 restrictions are lax, and cases are high.
Mind Your Business?
In the social media melee surrounding these vacations, some questioned whether it’s really anyone’s business. Some argued that those who want to travel should travel, and those who don’t approve should stay home. In response, others noted that the center of influencer culture is in Los Angeles. In Los Angeles cases are currently at entirely unmanageable levels, in part due to holiday travel. Dua Lipa and her boyfriend Anwar Hadid reside in Los Angeles, where ICUs are completely full and health officials are now recommending that anyone who leaves the house for any reason should wear a mask around their families when they return, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Hadid has also, in the past, posted content on social media that falls in line with the anti-vaccination movement, though he has since denied that he is against vaccines.
Mexico has always been a popular travel destination for Californians. It’s a short flight to get away from the traffic and smog to a more pleasant place. The problem is, California is now an epicenter for COVID-19 cases. Any of these travelers could easily and quickly worsen the COVID-19 case load in Mexico.
This social media battle is evidence of the deep divisions our society is facing surrounding COVID-19. While some families are fully quarantined, staying home and following heath orders to the letter of the law, others employ a different set of rules guided by comfort and convenience. People are experiencing coronavirus burnout after nearly a year of ever-changing rules and regulations. There is deep disagreement about what is responsible, what is compassionate, and what is dangerous. Misinformation is everywhere, and any criticism is met with shouts about cancel culture and police states.
Tulum is just the latest of the many COVID-19 battlegrounds. With the holidays over and vaccines slowly rolling out, hopefully it will be one of the last.