After Wilma, Is Mexico Ready For Some Fun?

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."


Flowers and towering palm trees used to crowd the median of Kukulcan Boulevard, announcing to new arrivals that they were entering a tropical paradise. When I arrived, the median was almost bare, except for an occasional bent and battered palm tree with a Q-Tip top.

The next morning I drove down the coast as far as Tulum. About 24 hours later I returned to Cancun and did a double take when I hit Kukulcan Boulevard. Huge towering palms with bright green fronds were back.

What seemed like a mirage ended after about two miles. Then, for another two miles, big holes dotted the median -- obvious receptacles for the full-grown trees anticipated soon.

The palms are an apt metaphor for Cancun: There's no denying the devastation it suffered, but the speed of the comeback is startling.

Repeat visitors might find some disappointments. For example, if Lorenzillo's lobster house is your favorite restaurant, you might rejoice to hear it's open. But if you had your heart set on eating in the part of the restaurant that sits on stilts on the water: Sorry, the roof is gone and the stilts are leaning.

Cancun's greatest loss has yet to be fully recovered: that glorious beach.

Travelers who seek authentic experiences without a hint of Americanization sometimes scorn Cancun. While I understand the sentiment, I always made an exception for Cancun, for two reasons. First, authentic Mexico lies within a short drive. But perhaps more important, whatever Cancun lacked in authenticity, it compensated for with sugary white beaches splashed by crystal-clear water in several gorgeous shades of blue.

The water remains; some of the beach has washed to sea.

The vagaries of nature are demonstrated at the five Royal Resorts in Cancun. One of the company's properties, Club International, added about 16 feet of sand to its already wide beach. Three properties -- the Royal Mayan, Royal Caribbean and Royal Islander -- are about the same as before. At the Royal Sands, where I stayed, the beach is gone. Waves lap at the base of steps that are partially collapsed.

The hotel zone is marked in kilometers. Hotels from Kilometer 0, closest to downtown, through Kilometer 9 all gained sand. That area, however, is on the Bay of Mujeres. While the beach along the bay is as white and fine as elsewhere in Cancun, the water is not as brilliantly blue, the waves not as high, as along the ocean.

Between Kilometer 9 and Kilometer 29, erosion has been a major problem. But some resorts still have at least some beach in front and a nice, gentle entry from the sand into the ocean for swimming. Others, like the Royal Sands, are crossing fingers about a $20 million federal program to pump sand back to shore. Meanwhile, the now inappropriately named Sands shuttles guests who want beach time to the other nearby resorts.

The pumping equipment to move sand from the ocean to the shore arrived earlier this month. Federal officials, according to Mancera, believe they will be able to replace about 1,640 feet of beach per week. How well that will work remains to be seen. Despite the scarcity of hotel rooms, a marked decrease in arrivals and bookings means that lodging is still available, even for the usually busy week between Christmas and New Year's.

Mayan Riviera

Tom and Judy Lampley and Kevin and Susan McAteer, all of Alexandria, made their plans to visit the Mayan Riviera four months before Hurricane Wilma struck. They left home early this month wondering what they'd find, but were pleased they hadn't allowed airline snafus to keep them away.

They discovered by chance that their flights on Delta, booked through Expedia, had been canceled, but they received refunds and found other flights at the last minute. For their perseverance, they were rewarded with beachfront condos in Akumal that had been thoroughly cleaned of the three feet of sand that had covered the floors just after the hurricane. And they enjoyed blue skies and empty beaches.

"There are fewer people than usual. It's quiet and really nice," said Susan. "We are so impressed with the workers," added Tom. "Everywhere you see damage, a crew is working on it." Every tourist I spoke to repeated similar sentiments, with the only complaints being about canceled flights that left them scurrying for alternatives.

The so-called Mayan Riviera, which stretches approximately 40 miles between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, was spared the worst of the hurricane. The area is largely back to normal.

That verdict includes, or is about to include, the two major attractions that bring busloads of tourists from Cancun: Xel-Ha and Xcaret.

Xcaret is a 200-acre attraction set in the jungle, with manicured areas that re-create Mayan and Mexican life. The birds have all returned, including dozens of bright red, blue and yellow macaws, and iguanas wander the grounds. The aquarium and butterfly farm seem untouched; four manatees are eating fresh lettuce thrown by one of the 1,500 staff members and 400 additional construction workers who have been working on the property since a day or two after the hurricane.

A dolphin swim program had already gone back into operation when I visited. Although Xcaret was not set to open for a week (the official opening date is tomorrow), the local craftsmen who make their wares in the park were already weaving and carving, stockpiling crafts for the tourists they hope will return.

At Xel-Ha, a government-owned preserve that has been partially developed for tourists, workers planted 10,000 new trees in anticipation of the Dec. 3 opening. The property, home to 40 species of birds, draws visitors who spend the day swimming or kayaking the lagoon and miles of underground river, or getting into the water with dolphins.

Two days before reopening, workers who weren't busy making last-minute touch-ups were swimming with the dolphins. Trainers, a spokeswoman explained, were worried that the dolphins would get bored if they had no human interaction, and besides, the workers deserved a treat.

The government is going ahead with plans to start building an international airport near Tulum, where a massive Mayan archaeological site sits on the ocean about 80 miles from Cancun. Actually, I'm sad to hear that my favorite, sleepy little corner of Mexico will likely be consumed by the massive development that generally follows airports. Consider going before that happens.


The island of Cozumel took a particularly hard hit but, like Cancun, raced into action.

Cruise companies said they would return only after 70 percent of the stores had reopened and half of the tours were operating. By Nov. 14, Cozumel had met the demand. As of early this month, 90 percent of all stores and restaurants had reopened, and 60 of 70 tours were operating, according to Raul Marrufo, director of the Cozumel Tourism Promotion Board.

I arrived at the downtown pier on a ferry that takes about 35 minutes from Playa del Carmen and was surprised to see that the downtown looks absolutely normal, the restaurants lively, men with guitars serenading for tips, carriages pulled by horses lining the beach. Just outside of downtown, the Cozumel Country Club Golf Course designed by Jack Nicklaus looks perfect, and the few golfers on the links had no wait times.

In other areas outside the downtown, though, the scars left by the devastating storm are clear.

The piers that used to receive cruise ship passengers are tangled and smashed. Passengers for now come to the island by tender, and a number of ferryboats have been pressed into service for that purpose. The shopping area at the Carnival pier has reopened, but the shopping center at a second international cruise ship pier, Punta Langosta, remains in a state of collapse. But that has made downtown merchants happy, because passengers who want to shop and eat now take a taxi downtown.

All 800 rooms in small downtown hotels have reopened, but the hurricane took a heavy toll on major waterfront hotels. As of early this month, only about 450 rooms out of 3,200 usually available were open. Marrufo said that by Jan. 27, at least 1,300 rooms will be ready. Nonetheless, tourism officials don't expect to see prices slashed to woo back tourists.

"We have to keep our standards and our values. We have to be the same or better to get tourists to return," said Juan Carlos Villanueva of the tourism board. "If we lower rates during the high season, imagine what tour operators will try to get during the low season," added Marrufo. "I can hear them now, saying, 'Give me a $19.99 room.' Rather than lower rates, we need to put everything into order and make it appealing."

Cozumel is known for its snorkeling and diving, rather than beaches, and shallow, close-in reefs have been damaged. Farther out, where the water is deeper, the reefs are "fine," Marrufo said. In fact, he added, "In some cases, sand has moved from the bottom of the reef and opened up caves, making the reefs more interesting."

Most hotels have kept employees on during the cleanup phase, and the city government has managed not to lay off any of its workers. Next year, if the tourists don't return quickly enough in sufficiently large numbers to revive the economy, the state and federal government will provide loans to keep workers in their jobs, Marrufo says.

That evening, on my return to Playa del Carmen, the ferry company played a video showing scenes of the areas' underwater beauty. The words echoed the pride I'd heard other Mexicans express about their efforts to recover from devastating loss:

"We have proved we retain the unbreakable spirit of our ancestors to face adversity and keep on going. We are Cozumel, and we are still here."

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