The government promised Cancun would be three-quarters recovered from Hurricane Wilma by Thursday. But these days, bulldozers are easier to find than tourists in this beach resort.
Luxury hotels normally packed for the winter season are closed to all but construction crews. Most discos, mini-malls and swanky eateries are dark. And while the turquoise waters of the Caribbean are as inviting as ever, they have gobbled up much of the famed white beach.
The Dec. 15 goal set by President Vicente Fox after the late October hurricane was impossible, said Gabriella Rodriguez, tourism secretary for Quintana Roo state, which includes Cancun.
“You want to reopen. But then you discover the damage to your building is more extensive than it seemed, or the insurer doesn’t pay you on time,” she said.
Of the resort’s 27,000 rooms, just over 10,000 are available this week. An additional 3,000 could be ready by year’s end, but many of those are away from the beach.
Most resorts and restaurants plan to be back in operation by January or February, although some won’t be fully up and running until March.
The loss of income will reverberate through Mexico’s economy. Nearly 3.4 million people visited Cancun last year, many of them from the United States. Along with the Mayan Riviera coastline to the south, Cancun accounts for 38 percent of the country’s tourism industry, Rodriguez said.
“Tourism is all we have,” said Raul Hernandez, who runs a T-shirt and trinket stall. “Nobody’s coming. Things are sad.”
Much of the usually glittering hotel zone, a 15-mile spit flanked by the Caribbean and a freshwater lagoon, is a construction zone.
Mountains of smashed concrete rise alongside piles of trash bags. Plywood covers the pulverized glass facades of hotels and storefronts. Five-star rooms are piled with building materials or water-logged furniture.
'It's not what you expect'
Despite the construction, Cindy Moreno of Sacramento, Calif., stayed at the Hotel Riu Cancun for a week. “We had fun at the hotel, but the city’s torn up,” she said. “The night life is shut down. It’s not what you expect from Cancun.”
Crews with rusty wheelbarrows plant palm trees, but hundreds of dead or dying trees still sag in all directions.
“We’ll be back after these messages,” crows a banner outside Sr. Frog’s, where the wooden red and yellow exterior is in ruins and the roof is almost gone. Displaced sand has turned the nearby lagoon several shades of tan.
Insurers have received nearly $1.75 billion in claims and expect the figure to rise. Fox pledged $500 million in loans and tax breaks, urging businesses not to lay off employees as they rebuild.
Cristian Castro, a 22-year-old cook at Planet Hollywood, now spends his days cleaning debris out of the restaurant. “Maybe Christmas in Cancun is out, but Spring Break and summer? Yes,” he said.
Would-be visitors change plans
Many tourists are shifting their winter trips to resorts in western Mexico, including Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas.
Milwaukee-based Mark Travel Vacation said it plans to fly 120 charters to Cancun in December and 190 in January, but many visitors will be heading to the 100-mile-long Mayan Riviera, which suffered less storm damage.
That stretch of coast, which begins some 20 miles south of Cancun, has 24,500 hotel rooms, and all should be nearly full by Christmas.
“Right now our focus is more on the Riviera Maya because we know that destination is up and operating and in very good condition,” said Mark Noennig, vice president for Apple Vacations of Elk Grove Village, Ill. “It remains to be seen how quickly the Cancun hotel zone will come back.”
The key may be the beaches. Where sunbathing decks and manicured gardens once stood, only sloshing surf remains.
Waves ate away everything up to the edge of many resorts’ majestic pools — and reached into others.
“This all used to be beach,” said 20-year-old Victor Rodriguez, who was sitting on a rock half-submerged by waves behind the closed Coco Bongo discotheque. “They want to rebuild, but there’s no sand.”
Fox’s government has earmarked about $19 million to restore the beaches, a project scheduled to begin Jan. 16. Hotel owners will replenish two miles of beach on their own.
Not all resorts suffered erosion.
“We’re one of the few who still have a beach,” said Tom Borgford, 78, who owns a time share at Cancun’s Royal Maya.
“But the really weird thing is when you’re on the beach you look around and there’s nobody,” said the retiree from Marysville, Wash. “Nobody’s out there enjoying it.”