Cancún ravaged, storm of weddings hits Cabo

Ever since hurricane Wilma thrashed Cancún three weeks ago, the most frazzled, flustered, frantic people in tranquil Cabo San Lucas have surely been the wedding planners.

With Mexico's premier resort still recuperating from the Category 4 storm, tens of thousands of winter sun- seekers are being forced to change their plans. Among those are the many brides and grooms who are now flocking to sunny Cabo to say "I do."

"People spend a year planning - and then have to redo everything in a week or two, so the pressure is on," explains Veronica Miranda, a wedding planner for Cabo's largest resort, the Riu hotel.

"I always start by saying, 'Take a deep breath. It's going to be OK.... I have a great florist,' " says Ms. Miranda who, after two weddings on Monday, one Tuesday, and three Wednesday, by Thursday didn't know if she was headed to a gazebo ceremony or an English garden reception.

Cabo's wedding planners, like the city's travel agents, airlines, hotels, time shares, restaurants, and taxis are rallying to absorb the demand created by the cancellations and closures on the other side of the country. "Cancún's misfortune," says Ruben Cota, promotions coordinator at Cabo's municipal tourism office, " an opportunity here."

"It's been a crazy few months," admits Vari Avila, of Baja Weddings. "First we were working with couples whose weddings in New Orleans were canceled, and now we are being bombarded with inquiries from Cancún and Cozumel." Two weeks ago, she says, they put together a wedding for 138 guests with a week's notice. "The hardest part," she says, "is getting the hotel rooms."

Cancún's Hotel Association says it expects 50 percent of its 27,000 hotel rooms to be open by Christmas and 90 percent by next summer. As of today, only about 12 percent are inhabitable.

The Cancún beaches, largely stripped of their white sand, are being recreated with sand dredged from the ocean floor, but they too, are not expected to be fully restored for months. Many tour operators have postponed or moved to change their clients' schedules.

Cabo and other Mexican alternative beach destinations, meanwhile, are overflowing. The Cabo Presidente InterContinental was 45 percent booked before Wilma hit, says Ana Ramirez, the hotel's sales manager. Today, it is 85 to 100 percent booked through January. Their Cancún properties aren't expected to open till March.

And the Riu, with 642 rooms, is filled to capacity with nearly 1,300 guests, says sales director Domingo Aznar. Two of Riu's three Cancún hotels reopened this month, but still, many tourists, hearing of the miles of fallen palm trees, the closed discos, the paucity of public transport, and low mood there, don't want to go.

Before hurricane Wilma, Cancún was Mexico's most-visited tourist destination, with 3 million visitors a year, compared to Cabo's 1.5 million. Indeed, nearly 40 percent of the $11 billion spent by visitors to Mexico last year came from Cancún and the surrounding area.

Cabo and Cancún have always boasted different characters - Cabo, an hour-and-a-half flight from Los Angeles, is more a West Coast destination; Cancún, with its easy charters to New York, is an East Coast affair.

Cancún is a place to dance disco all night, go wild over spring break, or set off to see the Mayan pyramids; Cabo is a place to go fishing, explore the desert, and play a round of golf. Cabo is smaller and more expensive - the average room rate here is $160 compared to $110 in Cancún and $90 in Puerto Vallarta. And while the Cabo area is growing at a rate of more than 20 percent a year, it still has only approximately 10,000 hotel and time-share rooms, says Mr. Cota, as opposed to Cancún's 27,000.

But hurricane Wilma, believes Cota, might have a longer-term impact here. "People who could not change their trips this year - maybe could not find a room, or change their weddings - suddenly started thinking about us as an alternative," he says. "I believe this will have a very positive effect on 2006."

Jennifer Lee, manager of weddings in Paradise, echoes this idea, saying many couples who had planned Cancún weddings postponed their dates. But many now have Cabo on their minds, says Ms. Lee. She has half a dozen November and December Cancún weddings rescheduled here for the New Year.

Laura McCoy, a young accountant, and her bricklayer fiancé Rob Morrow, both from Omaha, Neb., had planned to wed this week at Cancún's Casa Magna Marriott. But the hotel is still closed, with workers moving debris out of the lobby and rebuilding the pool area.

"I had a nervous breakdown," admits Laura's mother Mary McCoy. Their main objective, she says, was to keep the date and find a place that could accommodate them and their 40 guests, only 25 of whom managed to show up.

"I couldn't be too upset because it was a natural disaster - who are you going to be upset with?" asks Mr. Morrow, sitting down to an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch at the Riu Cabo with his twin brothers and best men, Scott and Andy. "But as it turns out, I think it worked out for the better. This place is gorgeous."

The ceremony will take place, as planned, at 10 a.m. A Cabo gazebo has been substituted for the Cancún beachfront; the reception moved from a Cancún restaurant to a Cabo patio. Planner Miranda coos as she clicks through a photography Web page with the nervous- looking McCoys.

"It's going to be very special," she promises. "It's the Mexico beach wedding you dreamed of - it's just on a different coast."

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

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