During a pandemic, the counsel of a good travel advisor is more essential than ever. Advisors play a critical role as pathfinders, scouting out destinations and properties that best address their client’s needs and preferences. They also provide a virtual safety net if arrangements go awry.

“Under normal conditions, some dismissively wave off the need for a travel advisor,” says Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA). But in the wake of a pandemic, everyone is becoming a believer. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of the travel profession even more, as agents rush to navigate a fast-changing and precarious landscape,” he says.

Balancing allure with risk

Cancun, Mexico has held perennial appeal for travelers seeking sun and sand. The region’s natural beauty coupled with its well-developed hospitality infrastructure (which includes an international airport; a variety of hotels, resorts and rental accommodations; and restaurants and tourist attractions) have transformed the city into one of the most popular vacation destinations in North America.

Like many resort areas of Mexico, Cancun has begun the process of reopening once-closed properties and welcoming back visitors with new pandemic health and safety precautions. Yet, prior to planning any trip, travelers need to assess potential risks.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) travel warning for Mexico makes those risks sound dire: The federal agency flatly recommends against all non-essential travel to the country, citing the high risk of contracting COVID-19. In addition, it warns that if travelers fall ill and require medical care in Mexico, resources may be limited. 

Earlier this week (September 8, 2020), the U.S. Department of State downgraded the Mexico Travel Advisory alert level from Level 4 (Do Not Travel) to Level 3 (Reconsider Travel), which should boost tourism. (Although border crossings between the U.S. and Mexico have been restricted since March, the restrictions don’t apply to air, rail or sea travel.)

Pathfinders on the ground

Because Cancun is so dependent on tourism, the destination was hard hit economically by the coronavirus. Akin to the experience in some U.S. cities, many restaurants closed, hotel occupancy rates declined, and unemployment surged. A Wall Street Journal article reported that hotel occupancy in Cancun has remained below 25% since the resort area reopened to visitors in June. 

Over the past two months, a number of travel advisors from across the country have traveled to Cancun and other resort areas in Quintana Roo to report back to travel-hungry clients interested in planning winter trips.

Forbes.com asked five of these visitors about their experiences on the ground:

Ragan Stone, Ragan Stone Travel, Birmingham, Alabama

In early August, Ragan visited Rosewood Mayakoba in Playa del Carmen (about one hour south of Cancun, along the coast) and Hotel Esencia (another 40 minutes south towards Tulum) with her husband. 

Although she had been to Mexico many times before, she was apprehensive about making this trip, primarily concerned that she or her husband might fall ill while traveling. The couple had initially planned to visit The Bahamas, which required a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arrival. But they decided to go to Mexico when The Bahamas closed its borders to U.S. citizens just before the couple’s departure. 

“We had already been quarantining to ensure we would test negative and kept this up until we left for Mexico,” she says. “It was important to us that we did everything possible to leave the U.S. healthy,” she says.

“The trip really felt like an escape,” says Ragan. “Because capacity at the resort was limited, we rarely found ourselves among other guests. Even at restaurants, tables were far apart.” The couple wore masks whenever they weren’t eating or at the beach. They carried their own hand sanitizer but were given “health kits,” which included disinfectant sprays, wipes, hand sanitizers and masks. “At both properties, we were temperature-checked and our luggage was disinfected,” she says.

“The resort staff was kind and welcoming. Although they were always wearing masks, their smiles and warmth came through.” Was she really able to relax? “I felt peace of mind with all the precautions being taken and with Quintana Roo state limiting hotels to 30 percent occupancy; we rarely found ourselves with other guests,” she says. 

There were also some advantages: “Prime beach chairs were always available and we were upgraded at both hotels,” she says. “For a couple slowly becoming exhausted with staying at home, it was an ideal retreat.” 

Marisa L. Cole, Sensational Travel, Salem, Massachusetts

As part of a group of travel advisors conducting site inspections in Cancun and Playa del Carmen between August 10-25, Marisa stayed at four resorts and visited two others. 

“As someone who has traveled for work as a travel agent for over 38 years, including travel to some exotic destinations, this was the first time I was apprehensive about traveling,” she says. “The idea of being in an aircraft wearing a mask, entering a country with COVID-19 protocols and the possibility of not getting back to the U.S. and also having to quarantine at home made me very uneasy,” she says. “But I was more concerned about the flights than the resorts,” she adds.

She flew on Southwest Airlines, which offered blocked middle seats. Although she had been concerned about physical distancing, her flights were only 50 percent booked. “Starting at the Cancun Airport, I was impressed with the discreet temperature screenings and ease of passport control. The only area where social distancing was not observed was at the luggage carousel,” she says. She arranged private ground transfers and strongly recommends the same for her clients.

At the hotel, she routinely wore a fabric face mask except when eating or swimming. “All resort staff had face masks and hand sanitizer was offered when entering restaurants and in all public areas.” Other precautions on-site: Her luggage was sprayed with disinfectant at check-in; plastic luncheon menus were disinfected; contactless QR codes were used for ordering; gym usage was limited, available only by reservation; social distancing measures were observed at bars and pools, and swim-up bars were closed.

“All the resorts are doing a good job with health and safety, however, I might recommend smaller resorts,” she says. She was particularly wowed by Le Blanc Spa Resort, an adult-only all inclusive in Cancun, and Playacar Palace, an all-inclusive in Playa del Carmen—both Palace Resorts properties.

“Now that I have been there, I believe Mexico is an option for travelers who are itching to get away,” she says. “It is probably the only safe destination for American travelers—a country where you don’t need forms, special insurance, and can support the travel industry by using many travel companies that provide jobs to many.”

Jennifer Pearce, Skyline Travel, Fountain Hills, Arizona  

In early July, Jennifer visited Unico 2087. located in Akuma, about 60 miles south of the airport between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. She had booked a late September destination wedding at the property for her clients and wanted to be able to give them a firsthand report before the big event. The timing of her visit also provided a serendipitous opportunity to celebrate her son’s 21st birthday with family.

“An all-inclusive resort is a great option if guests are uncomfortable going off-property as most have so many activities to participate in without leaving the grounds,” she says. 

“I would definitely recommend Mexico,” she says. “Actually, at this point in the pandemic, it is the only international destination I’m recommending.” Her advice: When planning a trip, choose a resort that offers the amenities you are seeking and adhere to all the new hygiene and safety protocols. And whenever in any foreign country, follow their rules, don’t go to areas you don’t know, and don’t drink excessively.

She is planning to return in September to visit  Grand Velas in Playa del Carmen. “I feel safer in Mexico than in the States,” she says.

Mark Comfort, Cruise Holidays Kansas City (Travel Leaders affiliate), Missouri

Mark stayed at Hyatt Ziva Cancun between August 3-7 and visited three other properties: Hyatt Zilara Cancun, Hilton Playa del Carmen, and Panama Jack Resorts Cancun.

From airports to flights to transfers to resorts, he was impressed with the measures being taken to keep people safe. “There are fewer things you have to touch, everyone wore masks, and there was little talking on the airplane,” he says. The arrival times of planes coming into Cancun seemed to be staggered, he says, so there weren’t many crowds or lines. “During transfers, they literally sprayed the bottom of your shoes and your hands with a disinfectant and when I got to the hotel, they sprayed us again,” he says.

Upon arrival, temperatures were checked, luggage was sanitized and guest room doors were sealed indicating they had been sanitized. “Inside, the TV remote was sealed in a clear plastic case, toiletries were in a sealed clear plastic case, and the toilet lid had a disinfected banner over it,” he says 

“Every employee wore a mask and never removed it in public. Elevators had a four-person maximum rule with circles to stand in drawn at  the four corners,” he says. 

Social distancing measures were practiced in restaurants and lounges. “But if you are nervous, you can also order room service,” he says. “I only did that for breakfast but was impressed. They brought disposable paper bags and the only thing that wasn’t disposable was the stainless steel carafe for the coffee.” In addition, everything else in his room was placed in plastic containers with a seal you had to break to open.

He suggests travelers opt for the best properties they can afford. “My nervousness isn’t the 4.5 or 5-star properties,” he says. He also emphasizes the importance of booking a vacation with a knowledgeable advisor who is in regular contact with suppliers.  

“Based on my experience, I strongly recommend that everyone get back to vacationing as soon as possible,” he says. “I needed a vacation and seeing the palm trees swaying and the white sand beaches was incredibly uplifting.”

Debbie Sebastian, Thomas Travel Leaders Danville, Kentucky

Along with colleagues from other states, Debbie created a travel pod, and turned her scouting trip to Le Blanc Spa Resorts Cancun into a girlfriend getaway. 

The group of eight included Kim Gorres, Travel Leaders Travel Now; Bonnie Haley, Bon Voyage Travel Leaders; Sue Tindell, Travel Leaders Rice Lake; Denise Petricka, Higgins Travel Leaders; Sara Butruff, Galaxy Travel Leaders; Cindy Tyo, Travel Leaders of Fargo; and Laurie Larson, Travel Leaders Grand Rapids. Before the trip, all the women made sure they were COVID-19-free so they could socialize and travel safely together. 

Only 48 hours into the trip and currently in Cancun (until September 15th), Debbie reports that hotel occupancy levels will increase to 60 percent on Monday. She also reports that many restaurants are now open in downtown Cancun. Visiting a number of properties, she’s found that health policies vary somewhat by brand; at some, mask-wearing is optional for guests although all staff are required to wear them. 

“Because of the pandemic, destinations are going above and beyond in friendliness, cleanliness, and efforts to offer their guests peace of mind,“ she says, “One of the things that impressed our group was the safety measures in place for spa surfaces. While some resorts haven’t yet opened up their spas, LeBlanc and Palace Resorts appear to have it down to a science; I witnessed firsthand the cleanliness and sanitation steps that they take before and between guests.” 

How did the experience feel? Was it almost normal? “One of the things most apparent so far is that people are happy. There are smiles, laughter, and joy in people’s voices when they talk,” she says. “You run into someone in a hallway and they’re quick to say good morning or good afternoon, are you enjoying the sunshine, wasn’t that a great dinner, and nothing of the gloom and doom of the pandemic that has surrounded us and consumed us for the last six months.” 

The bottom line

Non-essential travel anywhere during a pandemic carries risks. Thus, travel decisions must be thoughtfully considered based on a variety of factors. These include an individual’s health, age and other personal risk factors; COVID-19 infection rates (which are subject to wide fluctuations); health and safety standards; medical resources at their destination—-and willingness to take risk.   

Although some of the travel advisors’ trips to Cancun and other areas of Quintana Roo were hosted at reduced rates (either by properties or destinations), travel professionals have a vested interest in helping clients avert unwanted surprises or disappointments, and in maintaining long-term relationships.