Mexican resorts suffer from flu phobia, worldwide recession

By Tim Carman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 25, 2009

My wife and I had the cabbie drop us in downtown Isla Mujeres so we could polish off some croissants and a plate of chilaquiles, that Mexican breakfast staple, before wandering over to Playa del Norte, the island's most popular beach. As we sat at the outdoor cafe, the early-morning sun still formulating its plan of attack on our cubicle-pale bodies, we couldn't help noticing that aside from the wait staff and the steroidal lobster lolling in a nearby tank, we were about the only creatures around.

Our sense of being the last tourists on the island only intensified as we walked those few quiet blocks to the beach. The narrow streets, crowded with shops and restaurants and hotels, were almost deserted, too. The browned, weather-beaten men and women who stood vigil outside their stores viewed us, I felt, less as tourists than as sheep that must be trapped, and not released, until sheared of our wool.

The come-hither hustle, of course, is nothing new to Mexican tourist centers, but the relentlessness, even desperation, of these street pitches underscored a sad truth about Isla Mujeres this past August: The place was dead, and merchants had far fewer opportunities to make a buck. The European backpackers who usually descend upon the island at that time of year were mostly absent. So were diners at some of Isla's finest restaurants, including Casa O's, where one Friday evening we were the only two customers sitting beneath the circular palapa with the gorgeous sunset views of Mujeres Bay. And Playa del Norte? We had the run of the sugar-white beaches once we made it through the gantlet of street hawkers.

It wasn't hard to pinpoint the troubles afflicting the local tourism industry, but I still wanted to hear it from shopkeepers' mouths. Everywhere I went, particularly if I didn't have to converse in my embarrassing pidgin Spanish, I'd ask the owner why the island was so devoid of tourists. Their answers were always the same: the global economic downturn and swine flu.

The country widely viewed as the epicenter of H1N1 virus was obviously paying the price for it. During the height of the swine flu hysteria in late April and early May, both the U.S. State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised against all nonessential travel to Mexico. Some companies outright banned business trips to the country, cruise ships avoided Mexican ports of call and airlines cut back flights. The warnings and restrictions took a quick toll on tourism, the nation's third-leading source of revenue after oil exports and money transfers from Mexicans working abroad. Some news sources during the spring pegged the drop in tourism dollars in Cancun at 82 percent, requiring the layoffs of tens of thousands of hotel employees.

A truism of information is that good news never travels as fast, or penetrates as deeply, as bad news. By the summer, long after media outlets began reporting that H1N1 wasn't as deadly as feared and that the number of new cases in Mexico had dropped precipitously, tourists were still hesitant to return to the country. Tourists, in fact, were keeping their distance despite such tantalizing offers as Real Resorts' bold "flu-free guarantee," which promised a free vacation for three straight years if you could verify that you came down with H1N1 while vacationing at one of the chain's hotels.

Even if the "swine flu discounts," as my wife and I started referring to them, aren't as generous as they were earlier this year, Americans still have a built-in discount these days. The dollar's exchange rate against the peso is approaching all-time highs. At current rates, each dollar exchanged will return you about 13 pesos, far better than the nine- or 10-peso rate you got during the late '90s.

Your cash will go a long way on Isla Mujeres, particularly if you know where to spend it. Few tourists come to the island for its night life or Mayan ruins, since the skinny strip of land pales in comparison with other destinations on the Yucatan peninsula when it comes to those kinds of attractions. Your focus on Isla Mujeres, in fact, will almost always be away from the island -- toward the clear, multicolored water that grows gradually darker from shore to sea, from pale powder blue to turquoise to royal blue.

Ninety percent of your pleasure will be derived from the outer edges of Isla Mujeres. It might come from lounging on the pristine beaches of Playa del Norte or gobbling down the Mayan fish plate known as tikin xic on Playa Lancheros, or strolling the pathways of Punta Sur as they wind around and through the rugged cliffs on the southern side of the island, offering close encounters with a still-untamed section of the Caribbean as its waves slam hard against rock and land. All these are cheap thrills in the best sense of the term.

Guidebooks will try to persuade you to lay down serious cash for a chance to snorkel at another attraction on the island's fringes: Garrafon Natural Reef Park. (Garrafon's fees vary, depending on your preferred activities, but expect to spend nearly $30 just to enter the place.) The park is, without a doubt, a gorgeous spot with access to the island's best coral reefs. It also has zip lines and a climbing tower and kayaking and restaurants. But here's what it doesn't have: a sense of connection to the island itself. Garrafon looks like a rusty slice of Kings Dominion on a strip of land that still feels, in many ways, like a rustic old fishing town.

If it's snorkeling you want, locals will tell you that the place to go is just up the street from Garrafon: a private beach with the similar name, Garrafon de Castilla. For about $5 per person, you can enjoy a beach chair and an umbrella and, for a few bucks more, get the proper equipment for snorkeling. You can even buy a small container of pellets and quickly find yourself surrounded by hundreds of hungry fish, each seemingly ready to nibble the flesh right off your hands. Don't worry. They want the pellets. One tip, though: Don't feed the marine life around nervous kids at this family-friendly beach. They -- the kids, that is -- will just flee in terror as they see a massive school of fish rushing right toward them.

What do you, the adult traveler, have to fear on Isla Mujeres? Not a lot. Mexico has prepared for the fall and winter seasons with millions of swine flu vaccine doses, and you certainly don't need to sweat all the latest State Department warnings about drug-cartel-related violence, which is relegated mostly to the northern border towns.

But you do have to worry about petty crime. On an island where the average wage can be less than $20 a day, a few discontented souls may have no problem levying a "tourist tax" on visiting Americans; locals will warn you, repeatedly, to keep your valuables locked away while enjoying the island's beach culture. You should listen.

You also need to worry about something else: that this quaint little island might one day aspire to be the next Cancun. Isla Mujeres Palace, a luxury property, is already open there, and more fancy-looking properties are under construction on the south end of the island, not far from Garrafon. And just as worrisome to someone like me: Taco Campos, the island's best taqueria, has vanished from the baseball field where it was once located. So said the taxi driver when we asked him to take us there.

I momentarily panicked at the thought of missing those tacos, but then the cabbie said that he was related to the owner, who had renamed the institution and moved it to a spot much farther south. Within minutes, we were sitting at a table at El Cachirul, under a TV playing "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" in Spanish, and enjoying a platter full of the freshest corn-tortilla tacos, each brimming with meats and tomatoes and onions and cilantro. It's one of Isla Mujeres' few pleasures not found on a beach.

Tim Carman writes the Young and Hungry column for the Washington City Paper.

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