Airlines say some travelers are shunning Mexico vacations due to new COVID test requirement

For vacationers traveling during the coronavirus pandemic, Mexican beach resorts have beckoned.

Americans seeking an international getaway have been flocking to destinations including Cancun and Cabo San Lucas for sun and fun because they’re close, affordable and, most notably, don’t have entry restrictions such as COVID-19 test requirement or quarantines.

Never mind that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discourages travel during the pandemic and specifically says travelers should avoid all travel to Mexico, its highest alert level.

Mexico and Caribbean getaways have been a rare bright spot for airlines struggling to fill planes, but there are signs of a slowdown, executives say.

The culprit: the CDC’s new requirement that travelers boarding an international flight to the United States must show a negative COVID-19 test before boarding or proof that they had the virus within the past three months and have recovered. The new policy, which applies to U.S. citizens and foreign visitors, takes effect on Jan. 26 and may send travelers scrambling to find a testing location during vacation.

Planning an international trip: Here’s what to know about CDC testing rule

United Airlines has seen an increase in cancellations and a decline in new bookings to Mexico and some Caribbean beach resorts since the testing requirement was announced a week ago, Andrew Nocella, the airline’s chief commercial officer, said on the airline’s earnings conference call Thursday.

“There’s no doubt the testing requirement is a short-term negative,” Nocella said.

He said the impact is limited to the beach destinations, though, with no noticeable cancellations or booking declines to other international destinations, including destinations in Europe, Asia and most of Latin America.

The reason: Most countries already have strict entry or exit requirements for travelers and bookings have already been decimated.

“The one place that is different, that had no regulatory testing requirements, was Mexico,” he said, adding that the airline was seeing a “material amount” of travel volume to the beach resorts.

United isn’t alone. Delta Air Lines executives were asked on the airline’s earnings call last week whether the new testing requirement is impacting shorter getaways since travelers will basically have to get tested as soon as they land if they want to meet the requirements for the flight home.

The airline didn’t go into specifics like United, but Delta President Glen Hauenstein said there may be some “choppiness” in bookings as the new testing requirements take effect but that travelers will likely adapt in “pretty short order here.”

And if they don’t? Hauenstein said Delta will shift planes from currently popular international vacation spots like Mexico to flights within the United States.

Delta CEO Ed Bastain said COVID testing is a key to restarting international travel over the long term.

“But it’s going to create some short-term hiccups,” he said.

United is close to rolling out technology that will help travelers sort through entry and exit restrictions so they are prepared for international trips during the pandemic and beyond, Nocella said.

The airline is also working to add COVID testing partners in destinations including Mexico to give passengers easy options and more confidence in booking given the new requirement.

“One thing we need to do is make sure if you would like to take a trip to Cancun, you feel safe and secure about your ability to do that and return efficiently back to the United States,” Nocella said.

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