It’s a fact: for those of us working in the tourism industry, this pandemic has hit us harder than most. With nary a panama-hat, Columbia-shirt-wearing tourist strolling Mérida’s deserted streets, it’s indeed a time for reflection.
And I don’t mean the reflection you see of yourself in the mirror: as you gaze at your unshaven self, at your Christopher Walken no-barber-shops-are-open hair, wondering if today you’re going to feel mildly optimistic, or dangerously depressed.
I confess to having experiencing these mood swings at the beginning and there are days, some three weeks into the quarantine, lockdown, and commencement of the COVID-19 festivities (at the time I’m writing this piece, Yucatán is just beginning the ascent towards what might be a plateau of new coronavirus cases), that I see the black hole of despair in front of me.
But these moments are thankfully becoming less frequent.
My company, Lawson’s Original Yucatán Excursions, has been around for almost a decade. We have had good years, and not-so-good years. We have elbowed our way into the Yucatán tourism fray by upsetting the status quo of mass tourism, introducing new business practices, and improving working conditions and salaries for guides and drivers while focusing on private, personalized experiences without catering to the luxury-travel crowd. We have emphasized the inclusion of locals in all our destinations; hiring local men, women, and families to assist in creating memorable experiences for our guests. We strive to ensure that these often-overlooked people participate directly in tourism and are not just photographic props for a busload of camera-clicking tourists passing through without stopping.
And no, this is not an advertisement for the company. It’s a little background to help explain what we are doing now, and why. While I still haven’t figured out how to make money in this new, restricted economy, I have found that there are several things one can do that not only help, but also give me great personal satisfaction – the feeling that I am doing something. I also believe what we are doing helps to deflect all the negativity and bleak announcements that incessantly saturate our various social media accounts.
For one thing, communication. I set up a WhatsApp group to be in touch with the guides and drivers that frequently work with us. In Yucatán, no one agency has a large full-time staff of guides and drivers since a) there is not enough work year-round at any one agency, and b) most guides and drivers prefer to keep their options open. That said, we do work with the same people again and again as we have identified them as the best in the business and with those individuals, we have an open line of communication. We share recipes, information on upcoming courses, photos, and information in general. We avoid satirical memes and alarmist (and mostly false) news reports about a new cure or yet another outbreak. Through these conversations, we can determine who is going through a rough patch and offer assistance in the form of encouragement, support, and if needed, more tangible means. Everyone is still in good spirits, there are no hardship cases, and most are working either at home or have found alternative ways to generate an income.
This communication extends to those individuals I mentioned earlier, in the small towns and villages where we take our guests. For them, Lawson’s is supporting several families who, over the years, have made marked improvements in their living situations thanks to the extra revenue provided by tourism. Without this money coming in, they are in serious danger of sliding back into a precarious state and so, every 15 days we deliver a large package of food, cleaning, and personal hygiene items to these families to help out with their economies.
Besides the communication and direct assistance to those in need, I have also started an online project that showcases (if that is the term in this situation) many of the people involved in making our tour business the success that it is. On the Lawson’s website the normal photo-infused homepage has been replaced by a simple text page that makes a brief statement about what is happening with COVID-19 in our state, which then links to a directory of “our” people. They are guides, drivers, tortilla factory ladies, artists, the owner of this magazine, and street vendors, each of whom has sent in some sort of update on what they are doing – and how they are coping – during this difficult time.
The idea is to have them tell us, in their own words, how or what they are doing right now. All the videos, photos, and messages are from these current times. Some are humorous, others more serious, and some might move you.
And so, while we may not be able to take anyone to the cenotes, to the archaeological sites, or to visit a colorful market, there is something we can do to remain relevant in the eyes of our collaborators, our suppliers, our employees, and of course, our past and future guests.
Editorial by Ralf Hollmann
Photography by Ralf Hollmann for its use in Yucatán Today
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