Published On: Sun, Apr 12th, 2020

Coronavirus brings dark times to Cozumel, Mexico’s cruise boat capital

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Rolex, Cartier and Bulgari were shut down, the Cuban cigar joint was empty, and it just wasn’t happening for the guy hawking shark jawbones.

“We’ve got all kinds of sharks — makos, tigers, hammerheads,” said a frustrated Pablo Ramírez, 23,displaying a malodorous rack of jaws spiked with razor-sharp teeth. “But, right now, there’s no one here to buy anything.”

The swath of azure Caribbean facing his seaside shop told the story: Empty piers and a flat horizon all the way to the Mexican mainland town of Playa del Carmen, 12 miles away.

Not a cruise ship in sight.

There is big trouble in Margaritaville. The collapse of international travel due to the coronavirus pandemic has battered Mexico’s tourism industry, which generated $24.8 billion in 2019, accounting for about 8% of the country’s gross national product.

Few places have been hit more forcefully than here in Cozumel, the renowned resort island off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

Customers are scarce at the Cuban cigar shop where Ofelia Cruz, 37, a mother of two, works in Cozumel, Mexico. The shop was a magnet for cruise passengers before the pandemic. <span class="copyright">(Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)</span>
Customers are scarce at the Cuban cigar shop where Ofelia Cruz, 37, a mother of two, works in Cozumel, Mexico. The shop was a magnet for cruise passengers before the pandemic. (Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)

Spring is nominally the height of cruise ship season, and Cozumel is one of the world’s most-visited ports for cruise ships.

Last year, more than 1,300 cruise ships carrying 4.5 million passengers docked here — a record turnout that the island had been on target to surpass this year. The vessels represent Cozumel’s financial lifeblood, accounting more than 70% of the island’s economic activity.

Cruise-line devotees spend tens of millions of dollars annually purchasing everything from high-end watches and diamond bracelets to Mexican-themed trinkets, while also splurging on food and drink.

The threat of COVID-19 has shut it all down.

Cruise lines canceled planned stops this month after authorities identified the big ships as potential breeding grounds for the coronavirus.

Now the boats are docked elsewhere and would-be visitors are at home instead of roaming about the streets, beaches and bars in straw hats and flip-flops. Tourists who arrived on planes and ferries have cut short trips and checked out of increasingly deserted hotels.

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