Tourist areas in Mexico escape Dean's fury with minor damage

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The major tourist areas of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, Mexico, escaped relatively unscathed from the fury of Hurricane Dean, which made landfall as a Category 5 storm near Costa Maya and Majahual, some 225 miles south of Cancun.

Tourists had largely evacuated the three major coastal areas by the time Dean roared ashore before dawn Tuesday, with some 75,000 tourists fleeing by air or to more secure areas inland by car or charter busses, according to the Mexico Tourism Board. Those who couldn't or decided not to get out rode out the storm in their hotels or at the airports.

By all accounts, tourists and residents were evacuated in a more timely and organized manner than during Hurricane Wilma, which devastated Cancun in 2005. Airlines added extra flights as Dean approached, cruise ships were diverted and hotels and ground operators stepped up their operations to move visitors to properties outside the hurricane's path.

"The lessons we have learned since Hurricane Wilma have been evident in our preparations for Hurricane Dean," said Arturo Escaip, director general of the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The entire destination reacted with professionalism in a timely manner to make Cancun a safe haven."

Hurricane Wilma slammed into Cancun on Oct. 21, 2005, as a Category 4 storm, causing an estimated $2.6 billion in damages. Thousands of tourists were left stranded for days. An ensuing beach restoration project in Cancun cost an estimated $21 million.

Gabriela Galvez, secretary of tourism for the state of Quintana Roo, site of Dean's landfall, said that the 165 mph winds did considerable damage to trees, roofs and buildings, "but our archaeological sites at Tulum and in the region are intact. They have been here hundreds of years and were built well."

Wave action from the intense winds battered the entire Yucatan coastline as far south as Belize, even hurling rocks from the sea up onto land. Wave heights topped 18 feet in places. One eyewitness said that the "waves are so vicious that the iguanas are fighting hard to cling to walls or trees."

Reports from northern Belize cited downed power lines, torn roofs and high surfs. The destination's government is currently assessing the full effects of the hurricane.

According to a release, "with the exception of the Northern Corozal district, early estimates and initial hotel reports indicate very minimal damage in San Pedro and Caye Caulker. There was no damage sustained in Belize City, western and southern Belize."

   

Meanwhile, hotels in Mexico are mostly open for business and reported minimal damage, and airlines are making their return to the affected areas. Resorts in Cancun, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen that did sustain damage reported mostly broken windows and blown sand.

For example, the Riviera Maya's Hotel Esencia in Playa Xpu-Ha said it will reopen to guests Aug. 28 after landscaping and debris clean-up. Resort officials said the property sustained no structural damage.

In the meantime, guests who were evacuated from the resort will be refunded for any unused portion of their trip or credit the unused nights for a future stay, valid for one year. Customers with reservations who cannot travel to the region can reschedule their vacations or cancel their bookings without penalties.

In addition, Barcelo Resorts said that its six hotels in Cancun and the Riviera Maya sustained no "major damage and remain fully operational with all services and power."

Oasis Hotels & Resorts, which operates 10 properties representing more than 10,000 rooms in Cancun and the Riviera Maya, weathered Dean "successfully," according to Enrique Klein, vice president, sales and marketing for TravAmerica, which represents the hotel firm in the U.S.

Klein said a management team was surveying each property and reported no flooding or major damage. Cell phones, land lines and electric power are operational.

Similar reports were received for the area of Akumal where the Grand Oasis Riviera Maya is located, according to Klein.

In Cancun, the Blue Bay Getaway and Blue Bay Club reported no structural damage, and both properties are operational and open for arrivals.

A spokeswoman for the Cozumel Tourism Promotion Board said Cozumel was "largely unaffected" by Hurricane Dean. She said all the hotels and resorts on Cozumel will be open by Aug. 22, with the majority of properties back in operation already.

Damage to Costa Maya, the Mexican cruise port near the border of Belize where Hurricane Dean made landfall, is still being assessed, said Cesar Lizarraga, Costa Maya's director of sales and marketing. Among Costa Maya's facilities are three cruise ship berths, a 70,000-square-foot Mayan-theme entertainment complex, a hotel and several land and sea operators.

Meanwhile, Continental Airlines said it is operating its normal flight schedule to Cancun and Merida, and resumed its service to Cozumel after canceling its Tuesday morning flight there due to airport conditions. .

Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste, the Mexican airport group that operates several of the country's top airports, said the Cancun, Cozumel and Merida airports have resumed operations and reported minimal or no damage.

Although it's too early to put an exact number on Hurricane Dean's economic impact on Mexico's tourism industry, up to $300 million in insured losses from the storm are expected in Mexico, according to Risk Management Solutions, which calculates hurricane damage for the insurance industry. By comparison, Hurricane Wilma in 2005 caused $1.8 billion in insured losses, the firm said.

To contact reporter Jorge Sidron, send e-mail to [email protected].

Gay Nagle Myers contributed to this story.

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