- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2003

CANCUN, Mexico — It is hard enough for Hernan Perez-Palomeque to keep his waterfront steak restaurant full in the hot and humid month of September even when there are no 12-foot-high steel fences and Mexican military police standing outside.

The major international conference going on across the avenue has made business a little different this week.

“No one came in yesterday,” he said of day one of the World Trade Organization’s conference, being held this year in a city whose primary industry is foreign tourism — largely of the daiquiris-on-the-beach variety — and where the mood is usually far from sober and political.

The conference, which began Wednesday and ends tomorrow, has brought ministers of trade, journalists, leaders of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and countless other serious, laptop-toting policy wonks to a town synonymous with sun and fun.

One result has been a cloud of confusion for tourists, service workers and merchants about which areas on the peninsula are off-limits, whether protests will erupt into violence and what mysterious activities are going on inside the Cancun Convention Center.

During January and February, which is high season in Cancun, Mr. Perez-Palomeque’s restaurant is packed, he said. The eatery, U’Mediterraneo, also happens to be in a shopping center directly across from the convention center — the area being most closely guarded by plentiful police in riot gear.

The construction-site appearance of the cluster of shops and restaurants, coupled with the scowling policemen, does not exactly beckon to tourists. Mr. Perez-Palomeque said many potential customers might be scared off by the authorities, but he has no trouble getting around.

“It really does not bother me, because I don’t look like a protester,” he said, noting that his style of dress and government-issued identification tag show riot police that he is not one of the “hippies,” as he called them.

Tourists tended to have only vague knowledge that a serious event was happening. No one who spoke with The Washington Times knew about the conference when they made their travel plans. Most did not know what the WTO is, but wanted to know “what all these policemen are for.”

Visitors were generally uninterested in the conference beyond who is angry at whom. They are, after all, on vacation, and by coming to Cancun they were probably aiming to be far away from the seriousness of world affairs.

Susan and Denna, two tourists from Illinois who did not want to give their last names, were unpleasantly surprised when they arrived a few days ago at Cancun Airport.

“We get off the plane and see trucks filled with police. Hel-lo!” Susan said. When they asked around about the police presence, “[locals] acted like they didn’t know.” Their hotel’s concierge told them that despite the seeming presence of martial law, everything was “fine for now,” which they did not find reassuring.

Both women said they did not “know enough about the issues” to comment about the protesters and asked what the “globalphobics,” as the locals call them, were angry about.

“I assumed it’s anti-American,” Susan said.

“I am usually in favor of international travel,” she said, “but when we see boats with guns, it makes you more fearful.”

The two had planned to rent Jet Skis yesterday, but the sight of “PT boats out on the water, escorting people away” changed their minds.

“They definitely have lost some of our money,” Susan said as the two headed away from the convention center area and toward Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant for lunch.

Hotel and restaurant workers in the tony “hotel zone” district along Kukulkan Boulevard, a good distance away from protester camps, advise patrons to avoid downtown and the convention center area.

Kathy and Stephanie, two 26-year-olds from Utah, were spending Thursday trolling the open-air flea market Coral Negro, near the convention center. Had they not been advised against it by their hotel’s front desk, they might have taken a day trip to the Isla Mujeres, an island about 30 minutes from the hotel zone.

“They told us not to go,” Kathy said. “We were going to anyway, but they said we’d have to go a much longer route [to avoid the protesters]. So we decided we better not.”

Patrons who do come to U’Mediterraneo, Mr. Perez-Palomeque said, look relaxed until they catch sight of the two huge World War II-era ships patrolling the water.

“‘What are they?’ They ask me,” he said. The ships are a deterrent for protesters tempted to storm the Cancun beaches, and they are definitely piquing visitors’ curiosity.

It was 92 degrees at noon on Thursday, but no passersby were thirsty enough to patronize the bar at the monstrous Rainforest Cafe, tended by Antonio Castilleja Villa. The popular bar and eatery is across from the convention center, where journalists were working to discern whether any progress was being made in the trade talks.

“Many people are afraid to cross the street to come in here,” said Mr. Castilleja Villa, adding that he gets around the area just fine because the police issued ID badges to all workers at the Rainforest Cafe.

For many of the 492,258 residents of Cancun, the conference has had no impact.

“Everything is exactly the same,” said Fernando Dominguez, director of culture for the city government. Although his office is in the heart of downtown Cancun, where protesters have clashed with police, he said there have been “no problems with parking, no problems with traffic.”

Mr. Dominguez credits the character of the city’s residents and work force for keeping things relatively calm.

“The people of the Yucatan are very special,” he said. “[Protesters] have something to say, and we let them. People have the right to express themselves.”

Several shopkeepers have closed for a few days owing to a slowdown in business. Military police have had to summon whatever English they know to answer tourists’ worried questions.

Others have had their daily routines made easier, a bit more orderly. One taxi driver put a positive spin on the week’s new rules.

“So much security, eh?” the driver said, smiling, to his passengers after being asked his name and ID number by the armed guard outside their hotel. “It’s good for us.”

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