Making a Comeback 12-2-2005

An update from Mexico’s Caribbean resorts

By: Maribeth Mellin

Bill La Macchia Jr. of the Mark Travel Corporation was taken aback when he visited the Cancun area shortly after Hurricane Wilma’s relentless attack. Windows were shattered throughout Cancun’s hotel zone and its famed white-sand beaches had disappeared.

“Then I was very, very surprised and pleased with the rapidness of how they cleaned up,” he recalled.

La Macchia toured Cancun, then went south to the Riviera Maya and Playa del Carmen.

“I walked around Fifth Avenue [Playa’s shopping and dining district] and wouldn’t even have known a hurricane went through.”

Wilma raged over the northwest wedge of the Yucatan Peninsula from Oct. 21-23, whipping up winds of more than 140 mph and flooding the peninsula with relentless rain and storm surge. The news couldn’t have been worse for Mexico’s most popular and most lucrative tourism destination. Then President Vicente Fox arrived in Cancun and declared that the Cancun area would be fully operational by Dec. 15.

His proclamation may have been overly optimistic, but the area is recovering at an amazing pace. Hotels and tour companies are fighting to get back their share of the tourism market as tourists look toward Los Cabos and Mexico’s Pacific Coast as desirable alternative destinations.

“As Cancun, Cozumel and the Riviera Maya resume their tourist activities, we expect to see travel bookings to those affected areas rise,” said Lynne Biggar of American Express Consumer Travel. “In the meantime, customers whose travel plans have been interrupted still have Mexico on their minds, and they’re asking us for advice on alternate destinations in the country. Among some of our customer segments, hotel bookings for the more popular Pacific Coast Mexico destinations are way up over this time in 2004.”

But tourists are returning to the Mexican Caribbean and hotel rooms are hard to come by in some places. Clients who love the region and wouldn’t dream of going elsewhere are willing to forgo a few luxuries and adapt to the circumstances.

“Although tourism in Cancun is still scarce, the planes that are arriving are full,” said Anna Camacho of Mayaland Resorts in Cancun. “Most of the passengers are going to Playa del Carmen and Riviera Maya. People wanting to come to that area should hurry up and book as it will definitely be full starting in January.”


Cancun’s hotel zone is slowly recovering. Real, Riu, Blue Bay and other companies have opened hotels on the north-facing beaches, which withstood the storm. On the longer, east-facing strip, much of the sand was washed away and the government is evaluating plans to restore beaches. For now, hotels are shuttling their guests to better beaches. Le Meridien is one of the few luxury hotels open in that area; others are racing to reach Fox’s Dec. 15 goal. Some, including the Ritz-Carlton won’t reopen until next spring. Tourism officials say Cancun will have more than 11,000 hotel rooms (including downtown hotels) available by Dec. 20.

Many popular restaurants, clubs and shops are open. La Isla and the Forum are scheduled to open Dec. 15. Most travel agencies and tour companies are functioning at normal levels. According to Camacho, tours to Chichen Itza are operating and the Mayaland resort by the ruins is fully functioning. Tours to Tulum are operating as well, along with the ever-popular dolphin programs at Isla Mujeres and Puerto Aventuras.

The airport is functioning normally and flights are gradually increasing.

Isla Mujeres

Isla is the post-hurricane success story. Its main beach, Playa Norte, is wider and has sandbars stretching into clear water. Hotels along the beach are open and most are functioning as if the storm never occurred, as are restaurants and shops throughout the downtown area. Buildings have been spruced up with bright orange, green and yellow paint, and the bougainvillea is thriving.

The island’s southern tip still shows the affects of Wilma, with potholes in the road and sand, concrete and debris piled on the sides. Garrafon Park is closed at least until the end of January. Ferries are running regularly from Puerto Juarez, and electricity and water have been restored throughout the island.


Cruise ships returned to Cozumel on Nov. 14. Passengers are being tendered to the main downtown pier until the cruise piers are rebuilt. Avenida Rafael Melgar, also known as the malecon, has been restored and many restaurants and jewelry and souvenir shops are open.

Most resort hotels north and south of San Miguel were severely damaged, as were the beach clubs and the all-inclusives on southern beaches. The Hotel Cozumel Resort is open, along with smaller coastal hotels including Villablanca. Some, including Playa Azul and Casa del Mar are scheduled to reopen by Dec. 15. Most downtown hotels are open.

The shallow reefs close to shore were damaged, but Cozumel’s famed deeper coral reefs and dive sites are in good shape. The archeological sites are open, but Chankanaab is closed until at least Dec. 20. Larger tour operators are offering horseback and Jeep tours. The road along the windward side of the island is open, as is the coastal Ventanas del Mar hotel and Coconuts restaurant.

The Cozumel Airport reopened on Oct. 29. Mexicana is flying between Cozumel and Mexico City. Continental Airlines is flying to Cozumel three times weekly from Houston. American Airlines will resume Dallas-Cozumel service on Dec. 16.

Electricity and water have been restored to all areas.

Caribbean Coast/Riviera Maya

The northern sections of the coast, including Puerto Morelos, were slammed badly and most hotels are closed. Ikal del Mar and Esencia are opening in mid-December, and Maroma in mid-January.

The destruction decreases farther south and many large all-inclusives are fully functional. Five days after the storm, tourism officials announced that Playa del Carmen, just 42 miles south of Cancun, had not experienced any major damage in tourism infrastructure. The archeological site at Tulum is open, as are most of the hotels on the road south of the ruins. Xcaret is scheduled to open Dec. 12 and XelHa on Dec. 1.

Funjet Vacations is running flights to Cancun and taking groups to the Riu, Palace and Barcelo resorts in the Riviera Maya, and some of the smaller hotels are fully booked for the holidays.

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