- The Washington Times - Monday, December 19, 2005

CANCUN, Mexico — Jesus Gomez Vale used to make good money working as a waiter serving cold beers and pina coladas to tourists sunning on this Mexican resort’s famous beach.

Since Hurricane Wilma belted the area in October, however, he has had two big problems.

“There’s not much beach and not many tourists,” said Mr. Vale, 28, gesturing toward the rocks that were exposed when Wilma’s 25-foot waves scoured away most of the sugar-white sand. “This time of year, this beach should be covered with tourists. I guess we’re at about 20 percent of normal right now.”

Although Mexican officials have poured resources into Cancun’s recovery in hopes of completing most of the repair work by mid-December, in time for the start of the winter tourist season, much remains to be done.

President Vicente Fox had set an ambitious goal of reopening about 90 percent of Cancun’s 28,000 hotel rooms by now, “but we hope to have about 12,000 open by Christmas,” said Artemio Santos, head of the Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The total should rise to about 22,000 rooms by mid-January, with the rest ready by May.

“The key is to work as fast as possible, and you can see we are doing that,” Mr. Santos said.

Indeed, Cancun’s beach strip is a beehive of construction and cleanup activity. A small army of workers is busy replacing snapped palm trees, erecting toppled street lights and rebuilding shattered hotels and condominiums. Much of the debris left by Wilma’s pounding has been carted away, and shops and restaurants are reopening almost on a daily basis.

But the hurricane, which crashed into the Yucatan Peninsula on Oct. 21 with 145-mph winds and then hovered over the area for about 100 hours, heavily damaged the eight-mile-long stretch of east-facing beaches that was the heart of Cancun’s appeal.

“The first day we got here, I nearly cried,” said Irvin Wenger, a Pennsylvania missionary who works in Guatemala and often vacations in Cancun. “We always loved walking the sandy beach, and I wasn’t expecting so much damage. I’m afraid if they don’t repair the beach soon it could really hurt them.”

That message hasn’t been lost on Mexican officials, who have earmarked $20 million to pump sand washed offshore back onto the beaches, a project that should begin in January and be completed within six months.

The vast aid from the Mexican central government contrasts with Cancun’s recovery from Hurricane Gilbert, which made a direct hit here in 1988. Cancun was much smaller then, with only about 6,000 hotel rooms, and languished for months without power or much aid.

After Wilma, Mr. Fox was on the scene immediately, bringing with him the Mexican military and thousands of utility workers, who restored electricity to some areas within days. He also promised about $3 billion in assistance.

The government’s rapid response to Hurricane Wilma was necessary for Mexico’s economy.

Tourism is the nation’s third-largest industry, and Cancun with its environs is the crown jewel of the market, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the $11 billion Mexico earns each year from foreign visitors.

Despite the frenzy of rebuilding, many of the Yucatan Peninsula’s poor residents are suffering.

Long a sleepy Caribbean backwater, the city of Cancun blossomed into a sprawling metro area of nearly 800,000 residents over the past two decades as its beach was developed. Poor families moved from the low-lying interior, giving up subsistence farms to work as security guards, waiters, cooks and hotel housekeepers.

Although thousands of hotel workers are cleaning and rebuilding properties, about 2,500 have been laid off. Meanwhile, thousands of small merchants who depended on the steady tourist trade are struggling to survive.

“We’re doing about 10 percent of our normal business,” said Severiano Nah, 24, who works at a pharmacy in Cancun. “I know a lot of people who have lost their jobs, especially waiters. The government keeps saying we’ll be back to normal by Christmas, but I don’t believe it. I’m afraid it will take until next summer.”

Properties farther south along a stretch of Caribbean coast called the “Riviera Maya” — considered a separate destination from Cancun — were spared Hurricane Wilma’s fiercest winds. Many hotels in Playa del Carmen are back to near normal, and beach damage was less severe than in Cancun.

Officials said about 60 percent of the Riviera Maya’s 24,000 hotel and condominium rooms were open by mid-December, with the rest scheduled to reopen by Jan. 1.

Cozumel, an idyllic island just off Playa del Carmen, was hit hard by Wilma’s storm surge and may take longer to recover. But Cozumel’s important cruise-ship port, which landed about 3 million tourists last year, is back to about 80 percent of normal operations.

Mr. Santos of the Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau said tourism officials are keenly aware that they must act quickly to counter the images of destruction that flooded international news programs in Wilma’s aftermath. The Mexican government has provided $10 million for a promotional campaign, and hoteliers are bringing in foreign travel agents to show them the progress firsthand.

Travel agents Sylvia and Charles McDonell of Ontario, Canada, came on one of the promotions.

“I’m afraid to say, our first impression was that it was pretty depressing,” Mrs. McDonell said, noting that Hurricane Wilma decimated the lush tropical greenery they had seen on their last visit in March. “But everybody is so nice. We’d hate to say, ‘Don’t come here,’ but we can’t tell our customers that everything is normal.”

However, other visitors were more impressed, a good sign for Cancun’s economy.

“I think they’re rebounding pretty well,” said Anthony Miles, 36, a Charlotte, N.C., medical worker who spent a morning shopping in Cancun after his cruise ship moored in Cozumel. “I would definitely tell friends they should come here.”

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