In Wilma's Wake; Cancun Prepares for Tourism "High Season"
By Amy Covington
Cancun is undoubtedly one of Mexico's most popular tourist destinations. But what happens now that Hurricane Wilma swept through this once-happening resort town? From some reports it sounds like chaos in the tropics - with thousands of vacationers stranded and looters pillaging stores. So, what's the real story? According to Mexican officials, Cancun should be ready to accommodate tourists for the rapidly approaching tourism high-season, which begins in December.
Of course officials have an incentive for you to believe that order will be restored. The popular hotels along Cancun's Hotel Zone account for $11 billion of Mexico's annual tourist and hospitality revenue. Tourism Secretary Rodolfo Elizondo has estimated that the area could lose upwards of $800 million in revenue between now and December - even more if the clean and rebuilding takes longer than projected. Despite the earnest proposal, their promises don't appear to be lip service. Mexico's Federal government has earmarked $19 million for infrastructure repairs in addition to the $10 million allotted to the National Tourism Trust (Fonatur) for beachfront restorations.
Presidente Fox definitely means business when it comes to getting things up and running as soon as humanly possible. "Let us have three work shifts a day so that we can be ready by December 15," he said. Fox also said he would monitor the progress of construction efforts very closely, keeping Tourism Secretary Elizondo in Quintana Roo State as long as needed to coordinate efforts and assist local tourism service providers.
In addition to the monetary handouts, the Mexican federal government announced several tax breaks and incentives, such as the elimination or postponement of certain taxes for businesses, thus enabling payments to be made in interest-free installments and making investments in the affected areas between October 2005 and June 2006 completely tax exempt. Affected businesses will also be able to pay Social Security taxes and utility bills in interest-free installments.
And that's the good news. The truth is that the area was hit hard by Wilma. Tourists were stranded for days - the luxury hotels that once boasted high-end accommodations were left with heaps of broken glass and marble in their lobbies, along with wiped-out beachfronts, destroyed landscaping and gardens turned to muck.
Instead of soaking up the sun's rays and sipping margaritas, tourists hunkered in shelters, vying for provisions and cell phone reception. When the waves came crashing ashore, Cancun's infamous white sandy beaches were swept away. The powerful winds toppled palm trees, crushing cars underneath them. Wilma's wrath damaged 110 hotels, inflicting minor damage like broken windows to more serious destruction such as structural damage. While there was some looting, law enforcement quickly rallied to put an end to further ransacking and there were no reports of tourists being attacked or robbed.
The first priority of the local agencies was getting tourists on homebound flights. According to Tourism Secretary Elizondo, 51,308 tourists have already been evacuated from Quintana Roo on 13 flights from Cozumel (as of Oct. 27); and 97 from Merida, in addition to 150 bus trips from Cancun. There were around 2,000 remaining tourists slated to leave Cancun and 5,000 more in the Mayan Riviera at the time a press release was issue on Oct. 27.
Mexico's domestic airlines were scheduled to begin departing from Cancun on Oct. 28.
Clean up continues along Cancun's main strip, Kukulcan Boulevard and many malls are scheduled to open soon. The Mexico Tourism Board, with the enthusiastic support of Presidente Fox, plans on launching aggressive marketing and public relations efforts, including a series of events from Dec. 15-22, in the hope of attracting tens of thousands of tourists to Quintana Roo. The Tourism Board hopes that the hosting of the MTV Video Music Awards Latin America, which was postponed due to the hurricane, will help get tourists back to the area.
What does this mean for travelers? Possibly special travel promotions and cost savings but most importantly, if Cancun's business owners heed Presidente Fox's advice to view this tragedy as an opportunity, the Cancun you visit could be even better than the one you remember.