Cancún revving up again after Wilma

Three months after the hurricane hit, nearly half of the resort's hotel rooms are operational.

Morning comes into Cancún gently. The sky brightens into another cloudless day, waves lap ashore softly, and up and down the hotel zone, pool boys at mega resorts flip on soft trance music and pull out the deck chairs.

Three months after hurricane Wilma dumped its Category 4 wrath on this popular resort, causing an estimated $2 billion in damage, the place is back in business.

No doubt, Cancún is still sore from the battering it took over the Oct. 21 weekend. About half of the hotels here remain shuttered and hundreds of flights from the US have yet to resume service. Dozens of uprooted palm trees litter the exit from the airport, blown-out windows and boarded-up shopping malls are still apparent downtown, and in several places the famous white sand beaches have simply been washed away.

But, in equal measure, there is rejuvenation here: Hotels are reopening, beaches are being recreated, attractions are reopening, new palms are being planted, and great discounts are available.

"Now is the time to come," says Antonio Pitta, Orbitz's and Cheap Tickets' regional director for Mexico, the Caribbean, and Latin America. "Cancún is getting itself quickly into better shape than ever and we are promoting it - in a big way - as a terrific vacation destination. Now." He pauses. "Look at the turquoise waters!" he exclaims as if seeing them for the first time. "Is that something that can be blown away?"

Almost half Mexico's tourist revenue at stake

Over 7 million tourists, most of them from the US, visit Cancún and the 80-mile Riviera Maya coastline south of here every year, leaving behind $11 billion - a full 40 percent of what Mexico makes from tourism every year, says Gabriella Rodriguez, tourism secretary for Quintana Roo state.

It's no wonder, then, that Cancún is in a rush to rebuild itself.

President Vicente Fox has pledged $500 million in loans and tax breaks to hotels and businesses here, and encouraged them not to lay off employees. Also, a $20 million federal program to pump sand back to the shore is set to begin this month. Private insurers, meanwhile, have received over $1.8 billion in claims and expect the figure to rise, according to the El Universal newspaper.

But the vast majority of hotels are not waiting for insurance or federal funds to arrive before beginning to rebuild. Of Cancún's 27,822 rooms, 11,744 were already available New Year's Eve. According to official statistics, another 2,249 will open by the end of January, and by the end of April a total of 19,165 rooms will be in operation.

Some hotels - including the Hilton, the Hyatt, and the Sheraton - which either sustained tremendous damage, or are taking the opportunity to remodel, have announced they will not open before next summer. But of those that have opened, most - including upscale Dreams and Le Meridien - were 80 to 90 percent full over the Christmas to New Year's high season. And, according to Mr. Pitta, many others are offering 10-20 percent discounts or incentives such as a fifth night free, credit at their spas, or free tours to nearby Mayan ruins and tourist parks.

Beachfront hotels last to reopen

At nearby Cozumel Island, most stores and restaurants, as well as all 800 downtown hotel rooms, have already reopened, according to Raul Marrufo, director of the Cozumel Tourism Promotion Board. But the beachfront hotels remain badly damaged. Only some 500 rooms out of 3,200 usually available were open by New Year's, and many of them featured construction workers to go along with the poolside entertainment. But the famous reefs around the island, such as Punta Sur, Santa Rosa, and El Mirador, were not damaged by Wilma, according to the Scuba Club Cozumel.

While cruise ships returned to Cozumel in November, the piers need repair and those will not be completed soon. So whereas 40 to 45 ships would stop here in an average December week in 2004, that number was cut in half this Christmas and passengers could be arriving by tender for at least a year.

One of the biggest impediments to Cancún's return to normalcy overall seems to be the reduced numbers of flights coming in. At this time of the year, major carriers like American and Continental typically have anywhere between 200 and 340 flights a month to Cancún, says Pitta. This past December and January they are running between 40 and 80.

"It was a little optimistic to think we would be back to normal here by Christmas," admits Annette Schmid, vice president for contracting and marketing at Riu Hotels and Resorts.

"The airlines are waiting for the hotel rooms to open up, the potential guests are waiting for the bars and restaurants to open, the bars and restaurants are waiting for more people to fly in," she sighs. But, she assures, "It is all coming together."

The Riu hotel chain, with three properties in Cancún and five in the Riviera Maya, was one of the first to get up and running at almost complete capacity. "Now, slowly, the whole region is coming back to life. Every day a restaurant pops back up, another flight resumes service," says Schmid. "At the moment, people still have Wilma in mind and are nervous," she says. "But, in a few months they will forget. Everyone wants to go on holiday."

Carole and Gary Sander from Oklahoma City, Okla., came down to the Riu Cancún for a week's holiday with 19 family members. Sitting poolside, everyone from 70-year-old "Pa" Gary to 8-week-old Chip - all decked out in matching yellow "Kiki and Pa's Cancún Christmas" T-shirts - cooed about their Cancún experience.

"There was more damage than we had imagined," admits Carole "Kiki" Sander, an antiques dealer. But all the Sanders, she says proudly, went snorkeling, took canopy tours, and threw themselves into the never ending activities by the pool. "The sun is out, the staff are lovely. We are together. It equals a wonderful holiday."

Nearby Riviera Maya fares better ...

The biggest winner in the post-Wilma story might perhaps turn out to be the Riviera Maya, which starts some 20 miles south of Cancún and stretches towards Playa del Carmen and beyond, to Tulum. This area, which suffered badly from hurricane Emily in mid-July, was far less affected by Wilma, and all 24,500 hotel rooms here were expected to be ready by January - soaking up tourists, in some cases, from closed Cancún properties.

Sandra Nadel and her fiancé, Todd Holtzman, had wanted a Cancún vacation. But, worried about hurricane damage to hotels, they did some homework before getting on a plane from Los Angeles.

"I called the hotels we were thinking of staying with in Cancún directly to ask about the damage," says Ms. Nadel. "A lot of them didn't even answer - which was a sure way to figure out if staying there would be problematic." Hesitant to book a hotel which was just reopening for New Year's - "We were worried there would be all sorts of kinks to iron out in those cases," says Nadel - they decided to look south, near hip Playa Del Carmen.

And so, they ended up, with feathers in their hair and champagne glasses in hand, at Secrets Capri, an all-inclusive adults-only resort on the Riviera Maya for New Year's Eve, thrilled with the results of their gamble. "We were kidding on the way here, saying to one another - let's not have any expectations. Whatever it looks like, let's just enjoy," says Nadel, sitting under an ice sculpture and getting ready for the fireworks. "But it turned out perfect. I would think twice about returning to Cancún after finding this."

... but there's only one Cancún

Meanwhile, Cancún's famously raucous clubs tried to make up for the hard times. Both the Bulldog and The City discos were closed and under repair. But Dady Rock rocked on, and Dady'O put on a light show and busted the tunes.

"I would not say it's a normal New Year, or exactly the happiest one," admitted Gilberto Noyole, a security guard. "In fact this has been a critical time for us who live here."

Mr. Noyole lost his home in the hurricane. His wife, who worked as a part-time cleaner at a hotel, lost her job.

"But, as they say in the disco songs ... times will be better," he says, humming along to the music wafting out of Dady'O. "At the end of the day, there is only one Cancún."

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

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