First Dives in a Post Pandemic World as Cozumel Reopens for Business
Lockdowns are slowly being lifted but the dive industry has been left reeling by the shutdown. How were dive centres affected and has it made a difference to the diving? Is it different - or better - than before? In the first of what will hopefully be many more stories to come, Anita Chaumette of Cozumel's Liquid Motion Academy takes some time out to give us the low-down from Cozumel
The island of Cozumel, off Mexico's eastern coast, was one of the first international diving destinations to re-open for tourism, opening its borders and airports on 8 June, after being closed for almost three months to prevent the spread of Coronavirus.
Cozumel was also one of the first destinations in the world to receive the new 'Safe Travels' safety and hygiene stamp from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). The stamp is awarded to destinations and tourism businesses that are implementing new protocols to prevent the spread of Covid-19, such as reduced capacities, extra cleaning, the use of face coverings and minimum distances between different groups.
As of August 2020, hotels and some businesses are operating at 30 per cent of their usual capacity – a figure which has also been applied to dive boats. This is expected to increase to 60 per cent when Cozumel moves to the 'yellow phase' of its reactivation plan, the timing of which will depend on a variety of indicators, including the number of new cases of Covid-19 confirmed on the island and the capacity of local hospitals.
Cozumel's dive operators have created new policies and procedures by combining strict local regulations with the measures that the World Health Organisation (WHO), US Centres for Disease Control (CDC), DAN, SSI, and PADI have suggested. These revolve around strict personal hygiene regulations, social distancing and mandatory mask use, thorough and regular disinfection of dive gear and dive boats, and the removal of all communal rinse tanks. Staff have been given extra training on minimising the spread of Covid-19 and are expected to self-certify snd self-isolate should they have any symptoms.
Tourists who plan on visiting Cozumel are required to submit waivers and complete registration forms online before arrival, and will be expected to follow the same standards of hygiene during their visit. Due to the uncertainty surrounding the possible imposition of further travel restrictions in the future, most operators have made their cancellation policies very flexible, including free date changes or refunds.
The collapse of international travel due to the coronavirus pandemic has battered Mexico’s tourism industry, which generated $24.8 billion in 2019, approximately 8 per cent of the country’s gross national product – and Cozumel was hit particularly hard. The cruise ship industry – 'Cozumel's financial lifeblood', with as many as 1,300 ships visiting in 2019 – accounts for more than 70 per cent of the island's income. But the piers have been closed since March, and many shops, restaurants and bars along with them.
Many of Cozumel's residents, the fishers, dive instructors, boat captains – entire families – lost their jobs and their income. Those that could returned to family homes on the mainland, but there are many people on the island who have been without work or income for many months. Companies and individuals both on and off island created campaigns to buy food packages and help, but everybody is forced to live with the uncertainty caused by the virus.
All of Cozumel's dive centres were affected. Some managed to pay their staff throughout the lockdown, others launched online campaigns to help them pay their employees, or the rent on their premises. Unfortunately, some operators were not able to pay their staff and cover their costs and have had to close and sell their boats as a result.
As the country slowly reopens again for tourism, some dive operators have needed to increase their prices, while others are offering discounts or benefits as incentives for booking, such as free nitrox and discounted private charters for smaller groups. With businesses running at severely reduced capacity and following strict health and safety regulation, many of the remaining staff that can actually work are sharing jobs.
If there is a silver lining to the Covid cloud, it is that the shutdown has returned Cozumel to a time before the masses arrived. 'For tourists, the island is beautiful,' said Anita. 'It's very peaceful, calm – hotels and dive boats quiet, sterile and spacious. Diving is peaceful, and groups are small.'
Along with the peace and tranquility, the shutdown has had an impact on the local reefs. 'Visibility is incredible, the waters are crystal clear – many say they are clearer than ever before,' said Anita. 'Regular Cozumel divers believe the reef is in a better state than pre-covid. The white stony coral tissue loss disease that had been attacking the corals is now greatly reduced and corals look way healthier, and there is very little algae.'
The cause of the apparent remission in the stony coral tissue loss disease is unclear. Cozumel's southern reefs were closed in September 2019 in an attempt to combat the spread of the disease. It's possible that a complete cessation of all tourist activities may have spread up the process, but it may be due to other environmental factors, such as seasonal variations in water temperature.
The reduction in algae, however, which can devastate coral reefs if it blooms in sufficient quantities, is thought to be a direct result of the huge reduction in waste in the water from cruise ships, hotels and other tourist activities. Sewage and organic waste are factors known to contribute to algal blooms, and with so many people visiting Cozumel on any given day, its presence in the water – whether deliberate or accidental – is inevitable.
While the exact mechanisms behind the improved water clarity and reduction in algae may not be known for some time, the improvement in Cozumel's reefs since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown is without question.
'Many divers definitely see the reef more vibrant and in a much better healthy state,' said Anita. 'There are loads of juvenile fish, and better visibility for sure. Larger animals such as sharks and eagle rays are sighted regularly. Moray eels, scorpionfish, stingrays, turtles and all the usual reef suspects are abundant. Close to shore, the abundance and diversity has been monitored constantly and the fish population has definitively increased.'
Tourism is slowly returning to Cozumel, and Mexico, but it is still a far cry from pre-pandemic levels. Nevertheless, those who are able to visit have a chance to see Cozumel in a way that most people never will have seen and – perhaps – will never see again.
Anita and Guy Chaumette run the award-winning Liquid Motion Academy underwater photography and cinematography centre in Cozumel. You can see some of their work in our Featured Videographer section and also check out LMA's YouTube channel – which includes some completely free lockdown tutorials in underwater videography.
At the time of publication (2 September 2020), there are no direct flights from the UK to Mexico as the FCO is still advising against all but essential travel to Mexico, and a 14-day quarantine is required upon return to the UK. For those who are prepared to make the extended journey, however, multiple-stop return flights are available from under £500.