After Wilma, Is Mexico Ready For Some Fun?
Sunday, December 11, 2005
Mexican President Vicente Fox is scheduled to arrive in Cancun Thursday to ceremonially wave a starting flag, signaling the official reopening of the resort area devastated by Hurricane Wilma less than two months ago.
But is Cancun really ready?
After spending four days early this month touring Cancun and areas to the south as far as Tulum, I'd say yes, with a few caveats.
People offended by the sight of an occasional naked palm tree will have to avert their eyes now and again. Sunbathers who love to lie on the beach, as opposed to lying on a pool deck within sight of the sun-splashed ocean, should choose their Cancun resorts carefully, since some have gained beach and some have lost it all together.
Most hotels and resorts in Playa del Carmen and the Mayan Riviera, south of Cancun, have reopened. Even the trees have cooperated in the recovery by sprouting new leaves. In Cancun, workers are replanting damaged vegetation at a hectic pace. Although fewer than half of the 27,000 rooms available in Cancun before Wilma are now ready for occupancy, the buildings at resorts that have reopened show few or no signs that they were ever visited by a devastating storm.
Along Kukulcan Boulevard, a 29-mile stretch that runs along the glitzy oceanfront resorts of Cancun's hotel zone, you'll occasionally see a crumbled building swarming with construction workers. But most of the hotels so severely damaged that they won't reopen for months still show a decent face to passersby, with damage obvious from the outside confined to some broken windows and missing letters on signs. From the driver's seat of my rental car, it takes a second for me to register the names of two particularly hard-hit hotel chains whose signs say "ILTON" and "YAT."
Overall, though, the story of Cancun, Cozumel and points south is one of resilience, hard work and a federal and local commitment to make the area whole so as to woo back as quickly as possible the 7.1 million tourists who visit the area annually. In fact, it's rather embarrassing to see what's been accomplished and compare it with the slow recovery of parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Wilma hit Cancun with the full force of Category 4 winds on Oct. 21, then sat on the area for more than a day, battering it with wind and flooding it with waves more than 30 feet high. But the electrical grid has been restored -- 95 percent of it within a week -- and roads have been rebuilt. In Cancun last week, sections of some lanes of road along the resort strip were still being worked on, but the only significant traffic slowdowns were in the downtown area.
And workers are everywhere, laboring long into the night. The federal government has offered incentives to hotels to keep workers on their payrolls by deferring taxes and employee social security payments. Perhaps as a result, relatively few workers have so far lost their jobs, even in hotels that are closed.
Wait staff and housekeepers without guests to serve instead help with cleanup, and the federal government has been retraining service employees for the newly available construction jobs.
The contrast between the speed of recovery in Cancun and the lingering discussions about what to do in New Orleans immediately came to mind, and I asked Patricia Lopez Mancera, a spokeswoman for the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau, what accounts for the progress.
"Perhaps because we are a national priority," Mancera said. "Cancun represents 33 percent of Mexico's tourism industry and 15 percent of the income of the country. Everyone is devoted to making sure we deserve to win back tourists from around the world."