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After Wilma, Tourists Head Out

October 29, 2005|Sam Enriquez and Carlos Martinez | Times Staff Writers

MEXICO CITY — Thousands of tourists left stranded by Hurricane Wilma continued their slow exodus home Friday, a week after the storm began ripping through the Yucatan peninsula, killing seven people and badly damaging hotels along Cancun's world-famous 14-mile beach.

U.S. Embassy officials said the last American vacationers would probably have departed by the end of the weekend. Most of the estimated 20,000 or so tourists endured 40 hours of hurricane winds, 24 hours of widespread looting and a week cooped up by the hundreds in makeshift shelters without electricity or running water.

Many tourists left their luxury hotels for shelters Oct. 20, a day before Wilma struck. They stayed in gymnasiums, schools and movie theaters, relying on government deliveries of food and water, as well as their own resourcefulness.

With no electricity, ATMs and most stores were closed. With no running water, bathroom facilities were primitive.

During a few desperate hours last weekend, tourists joined in the looting of markets and convenience stores. After order was restored, they wandered the streets of downtown Cancun, a lost colony clad in shorts, tank tops and flip-flops.

Basic services were returning Friday in many parts of the city, officials said, as the last of the tourists were leaving.

"We are estimating that we have about 6,000 left, and about 4,000 will get out today," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Judith Bryan said Friday. "By Sunday, we'll have everyone out who wants to get out."

Commercial and charter airlines began flying out of Cancun's airport Tuesday morning. But service was slow. Winds had damaged the control tower, allowing only daytime arrivals and departures.

Ticket holders formed long lines all week outside makeshift airline counters in town, where boarding passes were issued. The airport was closed to all but those who held the passes.

Earlier in the week, flights were available from the airport in Merida, three hours west. But highway flooding forced even buses and four-wheel-drive vehicles to return to Cancun.

For nearly all the tourists, the week was simply inconvenience, Bryan said. "No deaths and very, very few minor injuries," she said. "The Mexican authorities did a fantastic job of getting people into shelters."

During a two-day visit that ended Friday, President Vicente Fox pledged that 80% of Cancun's 25,000 hotel rooms would reopen by Dec. 15, in time for the high season. However, the Hyatt, Marriott and Hilton hotels all said Friday that they had no firm reopening dates.

Total damage is expected to equal or exceed that from Hurricane Gilbert, the 1988 storm that cost insurers $1.2 billion, according to Rolando Vega Saenz, president of the association of Mexican insurance companies.

Jesus F. Nader Marcos, president of the national association of hotels and motels, said hotels on the Yucatan coast were losing millions of dollars a day.

The Fox administration has promised $20 million in federal funds to repair beaches and $318 million in loans for hotels and other businesses. Tony Garza, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, announced $400,000 in U.S. aid to the region.

"Hurry back, hurry back," Fox told departing tourists. "We'll be waiting with open arms."

Travel agents in Mexico City were scrambling Friday to rebook premium clients who had plans to spend Christmas in Cancun. Second choices for the holidays included Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo.

"It got crazy here starting on Oct. 18," Patricia Herrera of Felgueres Travel said. "First to get out some people we had in Cancun, and then canceling all the reservations."

Meanwhile, another tropical storm, about 160 miles off the eastern coast of Nicaragua, triggered government hurricane warnings Friday.

Tropical Storm Beta is expected to strengthen to a hurricane today, the National Hurricane Center in Florida said.

*

Cecilia Sanchez in The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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