Image: Vive MExico
Israel Leal  /  AP file
A tourist sunbathes at the resort city of Cancun, Mexico. With the swine-flu scare still alive, but the chances of contracting it in Mexico lower than ever, it could just be the perfect time to head south of the U.S. border.
updated 6/18/2009 11:51:15 AM ET 2009-06-18T15:51:15

The last time Bud Olson visited Mexico, he ended up in a hospital with kidney stones and missed the ancient Mayan ruins in the seaside town of Tulum.

So when he heard that swine flu was sweeping through Mexico just weeks before he was to return this year, the 43-year-old Seattle, Washington, resident and his friends threw all caution to the warm Caribbean breezes and went anyway.

Olson is one of the intrepid few who decided to come to Mexico in the throes of the epidemic.

His reward? No lines, great service, empty beaches — and lower prices.

"There was no one at our resort," said Olson's friend, Penny Moeller, 44. "The service was spectacular. But it's a shame for the economy."

Moeller says she ended up paying $142 (1,907 pesos) a week for a rental car she originally booked for $350 (4,700 pesos).

Yes, it might just be the perfect time to head south of the U.S. border: Sure, swine flu is still alive — in fact, it's now a global pandemic — but chances of contracting it in Mexico, where the outbreak was first detected, are probably at their lowest.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the epidemic peaked in Mexico in late April and now has spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The CDC says it will continue to be a threat south of the equator, where countries are entering the winter months and traditional flu season.

Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova says the number of swine flu cases fell from an average of 300 a day during the epidemic's peak to less than 30 now. "We don't really have any more serious cases," Cordova told The Associated Press.

Infections around the worldThe Mexican government has pumped $91 million (1.2 billion Mexican pesos) into getting that message out.

When swine flu broke out, Mexico was already suffering from the economic crisis and fighting image damage over drug violence. Spring breakers still flocked to Mexican beaches far from the drug-plagued U.S. border, but thousands of tourists and businesspeople from around the world canceled trips when swine flu emerged.

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President Felipe Calderon has recruited everyone from Mexican opera tenor Placido Domingo to Hollywood stars as part of the government's "Vive Mexico" campaign to jump-start tourism, the nation's third-largest source of legal foreign income.

Calderon recently met in Mexico City with actor Hugh Jackman, who "pointed out that our country is a healthy place for tourists," the president's office said in a news release.

Ben Stiller also has visited since the epidemic, despite being criticized for allegedly using anti-bacterial gel after shaking hands with Mexican reporters in Washington last month.

Stiller declared it all a misunderstanding and joked he liked Mexico so much he might even ask Calderon for a job.

So what will you get if you do decide to come?

Not swine flu, according to several resorts that are backing that claim with a "flu-free guarantee."

The Real Resorts Mexican hotel chain is among those offering one free vacation a year for three consecutive years — if guests come down with swine flu within 14 days of their departure and can produce the blood tests to prove it.

The chain also says it is discounting rooms up to 40 percent and offering 50 percent reductions on spa treatments, romantic beach dinners and liquor, as well as a "children stay free" deal.

"We have to show that we are free of this virus," said Real Resorts owner Fernando Garcia Zalvidea. "We have to take risks so that tourism returns to our beaches."

Nearly 300 Mexican hotels are participating in the "Biggest Hotel Sale Ever" campaign being offered by online travel agency Expedia Inc., according to company official Marco Tagliatti, who said that the average price for vacation packages to Cancun in which a flight and hotel are booked together has dropped 26 percent compared to last summer.

With the weakened peso trading at 13 to the dollar, the destinations are also a deal for recession-weary Americans. And if that's not enough to persuade travelers to risk it, the Mexico City government is promising them free health insurance.

All of that fanfare was unnecessary for Olson, whose common sense told him he was more likely to catch a sunburn than the flu.

"I'm still convinced that it was an ordinary flu that the government and some press blew out of proportion," he said.

Eva Litwinowich, 25, of Vancouver Island, Canada, arrived in Isla Mujeres, an island near Cancun, just before the epidemic broke out in April — and decided to remain even after her friend left early.

"I'm so glad I stayed because it's not what it was built up to be," she said as she trekked through the Mayan pyramids of Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula. "We met tons of people who also have come. I realized that not everyone was panicking."

Phyllis and Stephen Comparato, of Houston, Texas, were among only about 120 guests at a 1,000-room resort last month.

"We feel bad about the impact on the local economy, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be there with only a few people," said Phyllis, 52. "They took really good care of us."

At the Aqua hotel and spa in Cancun recently, eight pools of varying temperatures glimmered tranquilly in shades of deep and aqua blue.

Total number of guests bobbing in the round infinity pool overlooking the white-sand beach and crashing waves? Two women — one who said she felt like she was relaxing in her own private mansion.

The hotel's restaurants required no reservations and four waiters who had nothing else to do hovered constantly around the few occupied outdoor tables each night.

With the number of flu cases falling in Mexico, more international tourists are returning to the country's vacation spots, airlines and travel agencies say — but it still shouldn't be too hard to find a spot on the beach to lay your towel.

Fifteen of 39 Cancun hotels that temporarily closed at the height of the crisis have reopened, but overall hotel occupancy rates in the first couple weeks of June were hovering around only 55 percent, according to the Cancun Hotel Association. At the height of the crisis, occupancy dropped to as low as 10 percent to 15 percent at some hotels.

Museums, archaeological sites and other attractions that were shuttered for five days in May to stop swine flu from spreading are also up and running and desperate for visitors.

Dozens of vendors stood idly behind their displays of hand-carved wooden masks and ceramic Aztec calendar replicas during a recent visit to Chichen Itza, the Mayan pyramids that in 2007 were named one of The New 7 Wonders of the World.

But little by little, life has returned to normal across Mexico. And some businesses, including the souvenir shop where Manuel Acosta works, have turned the crisis into a marketing opportunity.

Acosta's store offers T-shirts that travelers who risk the trip can use to prove their courage when they return home: "I survived swine flu — but I'm still a pig!"

The shirts sport a racy graphic of two pigs in compromising positions and a drawing of a syringe over the words "Cancun, Mexico."

"We Mexicans have a knack for these T-shirts," said the 36-year-old employee, chuckling in a store notably absent of customers.

"We've made them after hurricanes and other disasters. It's a way of saying, 'OK, it happened, and it was ugly. But we're going to survive.'"

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Cancún caliente

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  1. Mexican magic

    An aerial view of Cancun Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula’s Caribbean coast at sunset. Cancun was purposely built as an ideal tourist spot by the Mexican government. (Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Postcard perfect

    Lounge chairs wait for tenants on the beach at Club Med. There's more to do in Cancun than one person can in one vacation - water sports, fine dining, nightlife, culture and more. (Macduff Everton / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Dance the night away

    Visitors and locals dance at the discotheque in Cancun. (Demetrio Carrasco / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Authentic arts

    Hanging puppets are for sale at one of the many shops in Cancun. (Bob Krist / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Water world

    Snorkelers explore the warm, clear waters of the Xel-Ha Lagoon near Cancun Quintana Roo, Mexico. (Dave G. Houser / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mango Tango

    The facade of the popular Mango Tango Restaurant - famous for its seafood and entertainment - is seen in Quintana Roo, Cancun. After dark, the restaurant turns into one of Cancun's hottest nightspots. (Carl Purcell / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Otherworldly discoveries

    A scuba diver discovers shipwreck debris. (Joe Mcbride / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Pretty in pink

    A town scene on Isla Mujeres in Quintana Roo, Cancun, Mexico. (Nik Wheeler / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Sail away

    Sailboats sit on the waters of Isla Mujeres in Cancun, Mexico at sunset. (Nik Wheeler / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
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