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Cancun Tourism Industry Dealt a Devastating Blow

Damage in the hotel sector of Mexico's premier resort area could reach $1.5 billion. At least seven people are reported killed.

October 25, 2005|Sam Enriquez and Carlos Martinez | Times Staff Writers

CANCUN, Mexico — Utility workers restrung fallen power lines Monday, bulldozers cleared debris and traffic cops tried to keep order on jammed streets that had just reopened after Hurricane Wilma pounded Mexico's premier resort zone.

The region's economic lifeblood, the tourism industry, was devastated: One estimate placed the damage in the hotel sector at $1.5 billion.

Residents hoped that repairs would move fast enough for hotels to reopen by Christmas, the high season when the city's 25,000 rooms are usually filled. But some buildings took heavy damage, including collapsed walls and roofs, so repairs could take months.

The storm arrived Friday morning and left Sunday before dawn, inflicting damage up and down the Yucatan Peninsula's eastern coast. At least seven people were killed.

Hand crews cleared entrances in the string of luxury beachfront hotels badly damaged by the storm, while shop owners arrived at work early to take stock.

On Monday, Adriana Rodriguez started cleaning up the mess Wilma left in Zapateria Tom Sawyer, the shoe store her mother, Mercedes Maldonado, opened 28 years ago.

"We lost about 2,000 pairs of shoes," said Rodriguez, 40. "The water outside was as high as the pay phone.... Now we're going to clean up, throw out everything that was ruined and go forward."

Water 3 feet high flooded the glass display in front and mold was already growing on loafers and baby shoes well above the floodwaters. In the back storeroom, the water had swamped the lower racks of shoes that stretched the width of the shop.

Rodriguez and three employees spent the day moving out store counters and trying to squeegee the floor clean.

Despite the losses, Rodriguez still made some sales. Tourists taking refuge in nearby motels bought 15 pairs of her undamaged stock, she said. Many were tossing out the wet shoes they had been wearing since Hurricane Wilma struck.

Others had it even worse. Lucia Leah Huiton started her shop, Artesanos Lucy, in 1978. On Friday, Wilma took it away.

Huiton piled salvaged T-shirts, serapes and sombreros on a table in front of Instituto Cancun, a school where more than 1,000 tourists had been cooped up since Friday. Her son set up a table at another shelter, she said.

"I had a small shop downtown. We also sold in the hotels," she said. "With all that gone, we'll sell in the streets while the tourists are still here. Then we'll work in cleanup or rebuilding."

Jesus Almaguer, president of the Quintana Roo Hotel Assn., told reporters that Cancun "could be ready for tourists in three to four months, if it receives support from the government." The area would need as much as $500 million in credit from institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, he said.

After oil revenue and remittances from migrants, tourism is the third most important source of foreign currency for Mexico. Last year the country received a record 20.5 million international visitors, and tourism accounted for about 8% of the nation's gross domestic product.

This year -- before Wilma -- government officials were expecting at least 21 million international visitors. Cancun and the Yucatan beaches are the country's most popular destinations. One in three foreign tourists to Mexico comes here.

"All of the hotels have sustained some sort of damage," said Ana Patricia Morales, vice president of the hotel association.

The first clear weather in five days raised hopes among tourists that they would finally be able to go home. But the Cancun airport remained closed, and portions of the road to Merida, about a three-hour drive west, were still partially flooded.

Lines at the bus station were an hour's wait or longer. Cars stretched bumper to bumper along the road to hotels as tourists in taxis and buses retrieved belongings left behind while they spent as much as four nights in schools, gyms and other makeshift shelters.

People lined up to use convenience store pay phones.

Store clerk Efrain Perez called out to passing motorists from his shop: "Tequila! Cold water! Beer!"

The Museo de Tequila liquor store had steel doors to protect against looters who struck Saturday and Sunday. Many shops with only glass and plywood for protection were ransacked. But order came out with the sun Monday.

Perez was joined by five other clerks "just in case" there was trouble, he said.

The big sellers Monday were wine, water and crackers, he said. "And a little bit of tequila."

Tourist Paul Whiptington was in high spirits, strolling down Waxchilan street. He and his family were still in a shelter, and their prospects of returning home to England anytime soon were not great. But his family had made friends with a couple from Tennessee, and looking back, he said it was something of an adventure.

And he got a new T-shirt, which read: "I survived Hurricane Wilma in a shelter -- Cancun, Mexico 2005."


Enriquez reported from Cancun and Martinez from Mexico City.

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