Guatemala Airport Reopens Amid More Political Intrigue (Life is Never Dull in Guatemala)

As the Guatemala airport reopens to international tourists after over six months, Nestor Quixtan looks at the situation and explains why the news is decidedly muted amid the rumblings of more political storm clouds.

The long-awaited reopening of Guatemala‘s La Aurora International Airport has been met with a unexpected thud.

A return to political intrigue and the health of the president has overshadowed should have been big news in Guatemala. More on this below, but first the airport.

Authorities pushed back the airport reopening so many times I’ve lost count. At least enough times for me to not really believe it would open yesterday. They first hinted at reopening La Aurora in June and backtracked and backtracked forever since then.

When the September 18 date finally seemed the real deal, civil aviation authorities scrambled to finalize bio-safety protocols for airlines, crew, and passengers entering and leaving Guatemala.

They didn’t finalize anything until the last minute on September 17. That’s when we finally found out for sure that travelers to Guatemala only need show a valid PCR test indicating a negative result for COVID-19. Visitors who arrive without this must undergo testing by Guatemalan health officials before entering the country.

Guatemalan nationals and legal residents must follow a mandatory 14-day quarantine period. They also need to let health authorities know where they’ll be for contact tracing purposes.

So if you’re planning on visiting Guatemala, ensure you have a valid negative COVID-19 test no older than 72 hours, plenty of alcohol gel, and several face masks.

And travel at your own risk. Guatemala has reserved the right to allow admittance into the country. According to official protocols, any suspicion of COVID-infection, even if the individual is asymptomatic, is enough to deny entry into the country. So, do keep this in mind.

While the government is encouraging tourists to visit Guatemala, the prospect of finding a country under lockdown seems somewhat unattractive.

Several countries have issued travel warnings against Guatemala. This doesn’t bode well for a depressed Guatemalan tourism sector.

Hotels and restaurants are open for business (under strict social distancing protocols). But that’s about all right now.

Public beaches remain closed. Ditto tourist meccas like Tikal. Antigua and Lake Atitlan still labor under strict quarantine and curfew measures. Will this attract real tourists back to Guatemala? Or will only the foreigners who spend extended time here return?

In the wake of the airport’s reopening only four airlines have confirmed their restarts.

Avianca, American, Copa, and United are coming in now. Aeromexico and Delta should return in October. Volaris has confirmed operations for December. But Guatemala is now playing catch-up, as countries like Costa Rica and Panama now have the upper hand on Central American air travel.

Moreover, Guatemala’s air traffic volume is way lower than the norm. Of the eleven airlines that operated at La Aurora International Airport before COVID, only four are certain to continue.

Pre-COVID, La Aurora handled over fifty flights a day into and out of Guatemala. Now they expect to handle five daily arrivals/departures.

The only confirmed destinations to/from the United States are Dallas and Miami. Mexico City will be the only other international destination until flights open up to the other Central American countries.

But internal Central American travel was never a big player for Guatemalan tourism. Most people on flights from Central American countries used La Aurora as a transit point, and hardly ever even then.

While we wait to see how the return of tourism plays out, the news of President Alejando Giammattei succumbing to COVID-19 has led to further uncertainty.

For now, the president says he’s okay and working from home, but we’ll see how this plays out.

The government had already been under fire for its “government center,” an ad-hoc agency created to support President Giammattei’s day-to-day functions. This agency has come under fire in recent weeks, amid allegations of business ties between Giammattei and the “government center’s” director.

To add fuel to the fire, the journalist who wrote an exposé into this agency was arrested on DUI charges.

The court dismissed the case due to a lack of evidence. Guatemala’s Public Ministry ordered an inquiry of the police officers who arrested the journalist, citing charges of improper conduct.

There is never a dull moment in Guatemala.

What should have been a joyful day marking the official reopening of Guatemala to the world, has now been soured by more political intrigue.

We’ll see how the government will adjust to a sitting president’s removal due to illness.

In the meantime, it’s unclear when, or if, Guatemalan authorities will find a sense of normalcy. The cynic in me says that with more intrigue and whiffs of possible corruption in the air, perhaps we are back to normal after all.

Nestor Quixtan is a Canadian/Guatemalan economist, linguist, and writer. He lives in Guatemala City.