- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

CANCUN, Mexico — Five-star resorts stand battered and broken, crawling with construction crews that hammer and bulldoze, weld and replaster long into the night. The discos are dark, many shopping centers and restaurants remain smashed, and the beaches have lost much of the sugar-white sand that made them famous. More than two months after Hurricane Wilma, Cancun remains a shattered shadow of itself.

“Everything we’re used to isn’t there,” says Judy Gilliam, a school bus driver from Methuen, Mass., vacationing and doing church missionary work here for the third time. “It’s still the same place, but it doesn’t really feel like it.”

Cancun won’t feel like Cancun for months, but many resorts on the nearby Riviera Maya have reopened and are nearly fully recovered.

Cozumel is again teeming with tourists arriving aboard cruise ships, although most of the island’s top hotels remain closed and officials say its coral reefs may need a century to recover.

On Isla Mujeres, many hotels have reopened and scuba-diving expeditions have begun again.

“People should definitely come,” says Linda Boechler, a financial adviser from Moose Jaw, Canada, who stayed in Playa del Carmen, the Riviera Maya’s best-known destination. “Cancun was more damaged and will take longer, but everywhere else is pretty much normal.”

With winds reaching 150 mph, Wilma roared ashore on Oct. 21, then stalled over Cancun for nearly 40 hours. It toppled trees, demolished homes and left much of the city of 700,000 under foul-smelling brown floodwaters.

Rebuilding began almost immediately and continues around the clock, especially in the hotel zone, a 15-mile spit of coast where glamorous resorts rise above the Caribbean on one side and posh shops, restaurants and exchange houses line a lagoon on the other.

“Sorry for the inconvenience. Cancun: Working for a new image,” reads a sign in English along the road to the airport. “We will be ready for you very soon and better then ever.”

Yes, but when?

The city was still crippled on Dec. 15 — the Mexican government’s target date to have the resort back up and running. Many hotels, restaurants and boutiques are hoping to reopen late this month or next month. Things could be largely back to normal in time for spring break, but fixtures including the Hilton Cancun Golf and Spa Resort and the Hyatt Regency won’t be back until May.

Mountains of smashed concrete are everywhere, and scaffolding rises in all directions. Many empty hotels are keeping up appearances, however. During the holidays, a lawn display at the Cancun Palace featured a towering Christmas tree, a snowman made of white lights and a blinking poinsettia of red and green lights. A deserted hotel hulked in the background, not expected to reopen until June.

“It’s weird at night,” says Javier Hernandez, visiting from Mexico City. “All the lights are on, but there are no people.”

Some high-rise hotels have reopened, including the Hotel Riu Cancun, but Wilma’s effects are still being felt.

“There was a mold smell that was really strong,” says Mark Taylor, who visited for a week from Sacramento, Calif. “If you go to the Riu, to room 550, and take a whiff, it’s all you smell.”

Many nearby convenience stores are operating, some with plywood still covering their windows. Gas stations that lost their roofs pump gas under tents.

“There aren’t many hotels open, but there aren’t many restaurants open, either, and we are taking advantage,” says Jorge Mora, assistant manager at Lorenzillo’s, a seafood place that relocated to a new building after Wilma blew away most of its original lagoon-front location.

Downtown Cancun — which was partially under water immediately after Wilma — has recovered quickly; most of its modest hotels and restaurants are open. Nearby archaeological sites, including the breathtaking Mayan ruins at Tulum, were not damaged.

Tourism officials have begun an advertising push to win back tourists who have stayed away. Some airlines and hotels are cutting prices through the first three weeks of January.

“There are deals out there,” says Antonio Pitta, regional director for Mexico, the Caribbean and Latin America for CheapTickets and Orbitz. “Hotels are now releasing allotments that would normally be sold out. Those are creating last-minute opportunities.”

Beaches devoid of sand may be a tough sell, however.

Some areas actually gained sand, thanks to Wilma, but erosion was a serious problem for the heart of the hotel zone.

“You can still see the ocean, but you miss the beach,” says Kevin Wholley, a chef who came to do missionary work with Miss Gilliam. “A big part of Cancun is missing.”

At the Royal Sands, where Mr. Wholley and Miss Gilliam stayed, the beach is gone, replaced by exposed rocks and waves that lap up to the concrete steps leading to the pool deck. A forbidding sign warns tourists against setting foot on the sand.

President Vicente Fox’s government has earmarked $19 million to rebuild the beaches and has hired a Belgian company that will begin dredging sand from the ocean floor Jan. 16.

Mario Lazcano, a biologist and the head of a Cancun-based ecological group, says dredging efforts will have to be careful not to further damage the region’s coral. “Loss of sand on one beach and the accumulation of it on another happens in any hurricane,” he says, “but in Cancun, we can’t wait for nature to replace the sand. The economic pressure to rebuild for the hotels and spas will make everybody hurry.”

On Isla Mujeres, mountains of sand covered roads and filled restaurants and businesses. Cleanup has been swift, and the tourism industry is approaching full recovery. The largest hotels on the island probably won’t reopen until the end of the year at the earliest, however.

Also gaining beach are many parts of Playa del Carmen, about 45 minutes south of Cancun. The resort is the main draw for the Riviera Maya, which stretches along the coast 100 miles south of Cancun.

Visitors to the area fly to Cancun’s airport, which is operating normally, and head the rest of the way by bus, van or rental car.

Janet Ring of Wanamingo, Minn., rescheduled her trip and stayed outside Playa del Carmen because of hurricane damage elsewhere on the Yucatan Peninsula.

“They said there was a lot of stuff closed and not much to do,” she says of Cancun, “but Playa’s been wonderful.”

The Cuban cigar shops, electronics stores and open-air restaurants in downtown Cozumel are also booming anew, thanks to cruise ships that began returning Nov. 14.

One of the world’s busiest cruise ports, the island lost its main dock to Wilma, forcing ships to anchor offshore and use tenders to ferry passengers.

“Without the cruise ships, we’d be the same or even worse than Cancun,” says Javier Najera, administrator of Playa Uvas beach club.

Besides the duty-free shopping blitz, cruise passengers heading to beachfront bars and grills for sunbathing and exotic cocktails have given other parts of the island a lively feel — at least until the late afternoon, when guests have to head back to their ships.

A tourist favorite, Atlantis Adventures’ 48-passenger submarine, began underwater voyages to Chankanaab marine park, off the west coast of Cozumel, Dec. 20.

Erosion was a problem for some of the island, but in other regions, crews simply moved sand back to the beach after Wilma blew it onto nearby roads and into parking lots. Cozumel’s Hotel Association said 2,800 rooms were scheduled to open by late December and this month, but many high-rise resorts have begun major remodeling projects and won’t be open until months later.

“We’re upset because it’s not like it was,” says Bonnie Buda, a Raleigh, N.C., property manager for a real estate company who has been coming to Cozumel for years.

“We still love it. We want to support the tourism industry, but when you’re diving and you see the reefs and you see the destruction of the hotels back on shore, it’s deeply saddening.”

Miss Buda says that this year, scuba-diving was a somber experience. “We weren’t able to see much except broken coral,” she says. “It brings tears to your eyes.”

For Mexico post-hurricane information, visit www.caribemexicano.gob.mx and www.wilmacozumel.com, or call the Mexico Tourism Board, 800/446-3942.

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