Cancún faces tall task of rebuilding

The hurricane wrecked resorts and hotels, as Mexico's $11 billion tourism industry neared high season.

Rosa Luisa Tapia, a grandmother of seven from Tres Reyes, a poor area on the outskirts of Cancún where most residents work in the tourist hotels and restaurants, is already turning her attention to the bleak prospects for the upcoming high tourist season.

"Who will come here now?" she wondered, looking frantically at her decimated one-room thatched-roof house. But she spoke only of the high end clubs and hotels nearby. "We have no houses, yes, yes. But if we have no work, we will have no food either," she said.

Cancún was turned into a wasteland over the weekend as hurricane Wilma devastated resorts and turned vacationers into refugees. Tourism is Mexico's third-biggest source of foreign revenue, with vacationers spending $11 billion per year, according to the Tourism Ministry. The Caribbean coast is Mexico's most popular destination, receiving 8 million visitors last year, 3 million of whom go to Cancún.

"Wherever you look, it's devastation," Cancún Mayor Francisco Alor said at an emergency meeting at the town hall Sunday. It could take, he said, "at least six months for the city to recover."

Mexico's president Vicente Fox had a more optimistic assessment while in Cancún Monday, saying it would take two months to restore "80 to 90 percent of the touristic capacity of Cancún."

"We're approaching the full tourist season, so speed is fundamental," Mr. Fox said, adding that "the economy here is called tourism."

Less than a year away from presidential elections, with the campaign season about to begin in earnest, Fox sounded a note of confidence while ordering the Army to take on a larger presence in the city to distribute aid and halt looting. "There is huge devastation.... But Mexico has experience, and it was demonstrated from the very beginning, saving lives."

Indeed, Mexico's tourism industry has bounced back from devasting storms.

When hurricane Kenna hit Mexico's Pacific Coast, including the popular resort town of Puerto Vallarta on Oct. 25, 2002, most hotels reopened a month or two later, in time for the high winter travel season.

Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 is remembered by many local residents to be the most devasting storm to have hit Cancún in recent memory. It took, depending on who you ask, between six-eight months to rebuild the hotel zone. But some people here say Wilma hit harder.

Either way the task of rebuilding will be enormous, and the government is already overstretched from hurricane Emily in July as well as, more recently, hurricane Stan and the mudslides that followed in Chiapas.

Tourists still stranded

It was not clear how many tourists were stranded but one senior police official estimated there were about 20,000 just in Cancún. Ironically, last Wednesday some 400 US, Canadian, and European travel agents gathered at Pat O'Brien's restaurant and pub for the opening of "Cancún Travel Mart," an annual event hosted by the local tourism board and aimed at introducing the "wonders of Cancún," to those who then pass along its praises.

"We had the kickoff ... we talked about what a big season this was going to be - and then, well, we went to shelters and did not shower for four days," said Christine Adelhardt, a meeting planner from Toronto, Canada, who was wondering Monday how and when she would get home.

The airport remained closed Monday and, due to damage, was it was unclear when it would open - while the road to the nearest airport in Merida was impassable due to high waters. Those few tourists who had managed to get to the Merida airport before the hurricane hit or through alternate routes were lined up as early as 4 a.m. Monday to jostle for spaces on outgoing flights. Both the US and British consulates had set up desks at the airport to try to help their stranded nationals.

Looting

Meanwhile, downtown, looters were bike riding and walking through the flooded streets - to fill up supermarket carts with meats to last them months, shampoos to last a year. Hundreds broke into liquor stores, electrical warehouses, and private offices. "It's not robbery," explained Raul Lopez Vazquez, a social worker hauling a small TV out of a neighborhood store in a wheelbarrow, "because we are not breaking into the stores. They are open."

In some shelters tourists were instructed not to step outdoors and were given soldiers to guard them overnight, while other tourists were told to make their way to the town hall as they could not be assured of protection from vandals if they stayed put. Late Sunday, some tourists were seen joining in the looting, grabbing everything from cigarettes to bottles of water to radios.

Sergio Ribas, room service manager at the Marriott hotel, says there was great pressure from among locals to get the tourism industry up and running as fast as possible - and this would hasten the reconstruction process. "Tourism is our main - you could say only - source of income, " he says.

Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.

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