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Mexico resorts getting back in the swim

Yucatan Peninsula rebounding from hurricane damage

By Marnie Hunter

Cruise ships have resumed visits to Cozumel.


Cancun (Mexico)
Cozumel (Mexico)

(CNN) -- Tourism officials in the hurricane-battered Mexican state of Quintana Roo hope to have 80 percent of the accommodations and amenities in the affected Caribbean coast resorts fully operational by February.

The Yucatan Peninsula state, home to tourism magnets Cancun, Cozumel and the Riviera Maya, accounts for about 36 percent of Mexico's nearly $11 billion tourism industry, according to Quintana Roo tourism secretary Gabriela Rodriguez.

Hurricane Wilma hit Cancun the hardest in late October, closing most of its hotel rooms. Between 8,000 and 10,000 of the city's approximately 25,000 hotel rooms are now open, and officials expect 14,000 rooms to be open for the holiday week at the end of the month.

"For us, it's very important that the tourists know exactly the status of Cancun, because we don't want them to expect something else and then have frustrated tourists," Rodriguez said.

"We're ready to receive a lot of tourists, but some construction is going on, especially in Cancun, so tourists should know about that."

In addition to the construction, some of Cancun's beaches suffered severe erosion. Beaches along a 2 1/2-mile stretch south of Punta Cancun have almost disappeared.

A $17 million beach restoration project funded by the federal government will start soon, Rodriguez said. The project, which is expected to take about eight months to complete, will restore and augment beaches along the 7 1/2-mile stretch between Punta Cancun and Punta Nizuc.

Rodriguez urges travelers to consult with hotels and travel agents for more information about the status of each property and the specific activities they want to pursue on vacation.

Road to recovery

With Cancun struggling to combat images of devastation, travel providers are seeing deals pop up to lure tourists back.

"The region is coming back. Many of the hotels are now opening up inventory and they need to fill those rooms, so there are some great deals that we've never seen in the last five years for peak season," said Alan Josephs, a vice president and general manager for CheapTickets.

The company has negotiated several all-inclusive, four-day, three-night flight and hotel packages starting at $527 per person for dates in January. Josephs believes some of the best deals will be available right at the start of the year while hotels and airlines are still regaining confidence in their ability to fill seats and rooms.

Richard Copland, CEO of Hillside Travel in the Bronx borough of New York, has seen a recent uptick in interest in the hurricane-affected region.

"Over the last couple weeks you can almost see as the hotels start giving more and more information as to when they'll be open, etc., there's more and more interest," Copland said.

By spring break season, tourism officials expect Cancun to be well on its way to recovery.

"For all the people who have already booked for February or March or April, they can be sure that the destination will be better than ever," Rodriguez said.

Riviera Maya and Cozumel

While Cancun is scrambling to get the bulk of its accommodations, restaurants, bars, shops and other amenities open by February, the Riviera Maya to the south is up and running with nearly 85 percent of its 25,000 hotel rooms open.

By February, officials expect bookings to get back to normal as the commercial and charter flights approach their regular schedules. Most of the restaurants, bars, shops and clubs have reopened, according to the tourism board.

Ancient Maya sites such as Tulum and Coba -- which are popular with tourists throughout the region -- are open and in good shape.

Because the Riviera Maya is situated so close to harder-hit Cancun, perceptions of hurricane damage to the destination often are much worse than the reality. The island of Cozumel protected much of the Riviera Maya from extensive damage, and the beaches were not badly eroded.

On Cozumel, about 1,300 of the island's 4,000 rooms are open, according to the Cozumel Tourism Promotion Board. That number is expected to creep up in January, and 2,800 rooms are expected to be available by the beginning of February. By May, availability is expected to approach 100 percent.

"Usually we come back very quickly, but this time it's just that it was just way too much -- too strong for too long. That was the worst part," said tourism board director Raul Marrufo.

Island tours and attractions have largely been restored, and the golf course and beach clubs are open, Marrufo said. Sand from beach erosion has been restored through a local government program and the beaches are close to pre-storm condition, he said.

"Right now the only thing we're missing is getting our piers in order for cruise ships."

Officials are still assessing the damage to piers, and repairs may take months. In the meantime, cruise passengers are ferried to the island from their ships in smaller boats.

Divers have assessed the area's world-famous coral reefs. Some of the shallower reefs sustained wind and wave damage on the top of the reef, but the underwater disturbance had the side effect of revealing some previously hidden caves, Rodriguez said.

Divers staying on Cozumel since the hurricane are enjoying uncrowded waters and personalized service, according to Marrufo.

"The service obviously right now is very, very personalized and very, very good because everyone is doing their darnedest to make sure that everybody feels most welcome and that we value their business."

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