Wilma's wrath leaves mark on Mexican Riviera


South Fla. on the mend

By Laura Del Rosso

Hurricane Wilma carved a wide swath through south Florida and the Keys last week, leaving downed power lines and debris in its path and leaving less time than earlier storms for travel destinations to clean up for winter visitors.

But Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau and vice chair of Florida Tourism Commission, said the storm likely wouldnt hurt the citys winter travel season.

By the time winter-season travelers arrive Thanksgiving onward we will look like Fort Lauderdale -- right now, we look like Fort Lauderdale with bumps and bruises.

Grossman said there was some damage to about 10% of hotel properties in Fort Lauderdale, affecting about 1,000 rooms. She estimated most hotels will be able to make repairs within a week of the storm.

Florida Power and Light gave itself a Nov. 8 target for restoring power to most customers.

Key West began accommodating guests Oct. 31, according to the Keys visitor association.

To contact reporter Laura Del Rosso, send e-mail to [email protected]

Chaos ruled last week in the Yucatan Peninsula as thousands of tourists jostled for scant flights and bus rides out of the hurricane-battered region.

Hotel and tourism officials, along with tour operator representatives, began to assess the destruction caused by Hurricane Wilma, which pummeled the state of Quintana Roo for 48 hours, ripping roofs off houses and hotels, uprooting trees and flooding roads in the resorts of Cancun, Cozumel, Isla Mujeres and, to a lesser extent, Playa del Carmen.

Hotels and resorts throughout the affected region suffered wind and water damage, with many of Cancuns major properties reporting that they would remain closed through at least the end of the year.

Officials in Quintana Roo estimated hotel reconstruction would cost $1.5 billion and take as long as four months.

Jesus Almaguer, head of the Association of Hotel Owners for Quintana Roo, said last week that as many as 80% of the regions hotel rooms had been damaged.

Thats devastating news for a region that generates almost half of Mexicos $11 billion annual tourism revenue.

Raul Maruffo, director of the Cozumel Tourism Promotion Board, said electricity had been restored to parts of Cozumel by the morning of Oct. 27.

But Ana Patricia Morales, vice president of the Cancun Hotel Association, said full recovery could take until Easter week.

Morales said all properties in Cancuns famed hotel zone were affected, ranging from shattered windows to collapsed walls and roofs.

Merida-based tour guide and local activist Carlos Sosa Estrada described the Yucatan as a war zone, where thousands of stranded people tried to leave Cancun via roads submerged under up to six feet of water. Gangs active around Cancun made land travel through certain towns unsafe, although, he said last week that security was gradually getting under control. Sosa also reported that the hotels on the Riviera Maya from Akumal via Playa del Carmen to Tulum were less damaged than properties to the north.

Mario Torres, an employee with the ministry of tourism in Mexico City, who last week fielded calls from families in the U.S. and Britain, said he had talked with worried Americans trying to find news of family members.

Communications have been very difficult, but we are getting information on individual hotels where tourists were staying and are relaying what we can to families as they call, he said in a telephone interview.

Tourism press officers, whose phones were jammed throughout the day with U.S. and foreign reporters attempting to get information, said top ministry officials had embarked for Cozumel -- which was believed to be the hardest hit within the popular tourist region -- to assess damages.

Norma Aguelo, who was answering press calls at the tourism ministry, said disrupted communications in the region were preventing contact with ministry officials as they toured the devastated area.

The Mexican federal government reported that at the peak of the crisis nearly 40,000 tourists were stranded in the region.

Getting Home

Cancuns airport reopened Wednesday with the aid of emergency generators, but the airfield lost its control tower, limiting flights to daylight hours.

Still, by Oct. 27, some 18,000 people had reportedly been evacuated by airplane. Others had been shuttled into Merida, many on buses arranged by the U.S. consulate.

Evacuation wasnt always easy. Andy Cooper, the CEO of the Federation of Tour Operators U.K., which represents the countrys 12 top tour operators, said last week that the trip from Cancun to Merida, which typically takes three hours could take nine due to flooding and debris.

Officials of Mexicos power company said half the city of Cancun could expect to have electricity restored by Oct. 29, but they added it could take a month to restore power to all of Cancun and Cozumel.

Tour operators who provided ground transportation were being pressed into service to transport people to airports, but the Merida airport became clogged with people trying to get out, leading authorities to temporarily turn some people away.

Gogo Worldwide Vacations director of communications Alicia Agugliaro said staff in the Cancun area reported total chaos, with a lack of supplies and concerns about security.

The company had some 1,500 customers in Cancun and Riviera Maya during the storm, and said it is working with ground operators to gather customers and get them on chartered flights out of Cancun. The company chartered two Hooters/Pace Airlines planes, and the first arrived Oct. 26 at Newark Liberty International Airport with about 200 passengers.

Ray Snisky, president of Funjet Vacations, said he began sending rescue flights -- empty jets from airline partners -- to Cancun in an attempt to evacuate thousands of customers from Cozumel and the region before the storm hit.

That effort had to be aborted before the majority of customers could be channeled out of the country. But after battening down for the storm, the company started moving tourists as quickly as blocked roads and travel to the mainland could be resumed.

At midweek last week, as thousands of other tourists struggled to find transportation out of Mexicos gulf region, Snisky said about 500 customers remained in the region.

We started sending empty jets to bring customers back on [Oct. 19] Snisky said. But the storm got so bad so quickly that we had to shut that effort down.

We made our first priority finding a safe environment to get our travelers out of harms way. We took them to convention centers and to ballrooms in hotel facilities, public shelters in Cancun and universities and schools.

On Monday last week, Snisky said Funjet armed four of its top executives with satellite phones and flew them into Merida, obtaining special government waivers.

There, with the help of local company employees, they orchestrated an aggressive evacuation plan using tour buses and other vehicles to bring travelers to airports that were still in operation.

Snisky said taking precautions to ensure direct communications -- which facilitated close contacts with local government officials -- helped keep the company apprised of developments on the ground in the stricken region.

He said company workers told him this week that some hotels in the southern section of the affected area suffered only minor damage and can probably reopen in two to four weeks, with just some mopping cleanup.

Assessing damages on land ... 

Others in Cancun were much harder hit, with Cozumel -- where state tourism authorities said midweek that their top officials were headed to assess damage to cruise port docks and other facilities -- suffering very heavy damage.

Clearly it will be at least a two months and perhaps longer before some of the area infrastructure is repaired and tourists can begin to return, Snisky said.

Expedia last week closed its books on hotels in Riviera Maya, Cancun and Cozumel and will not accept or take any bookings for those areas until mid-December, unless conditions improve.

Its a major destination for us, said Laura Veglia, Caribbean regional director of Expedia, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

For its part, Apple Vacations canceled all charters to Cancun through Oct. 31 and select Saturday departures from Nov. 1 to Dec. 16.

Kris Potter, Apples vice president of marketing, said the company airlifted about 2,000 people out of the region last week, and senior vice president Tim Mullen flew to the area to offer passenger assistance and to assess damages.

Some resorts may accept some new guests as of this weekend, she said. But we as a company have decided to cancel all flights through Oct. 31.

Marriott International announced it would close its three resorts in Cancun through the end of the year to recover from the storms destruction and salvage the bulk of the lucrative winter travel season.

The hotel firm said it was still assessing the damage at the three resorts -- the JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa, the CasaMagna Cancun Resort and the Ritz-Carlton Cancun -- and waived cancellation fees for guests with existing reservations at the three affected resorts through Dec. 31.

Meanwhile, Marriott said it evacuated guests during the hurricane to shelters further inland. The hotel company created a toll-free number, (866) 211-4610, for friends and family to call for information about guests.

A spokeswoman for Hilton International said the Hilton Cancun chartered a bus to transport some 260 guests on a 12-hour ride south to the Hilton Villahermosa in the state of Tabasco.

The spokeswoman said Hilton was working with a number of airlines, including Aeromexico and Continental, to fly guests home from Villahermosa Airport.

Its too soon to say for certain what the extent of the damage [to the Hilton Cancun] was or when well reopen, the spokeswoman said. Our biggest priority was to evacuate our guests to safety.

A spokeswoman for Starwood Hotels & Resorts said all guests from the Westin Resort and Sheraton Resort in Cancun who were in shelters were returned to the Westin on Oct. 24 and were accommodated in approximately 200 rooms.

The spokeswoman said the full extent of the damage to the Westin and Sheraton resorts in Cancun is still unknown, but the resorts will remain closed at least until Dec. 20.

Cooper, with the Federation of Tour Operators, last week was trying to evacuate 8,500 British visitors who were caught in Cancun by flying them to the Dominican Republic and then home to the U.K.

The Mexican government ... informed us that we had to supply aircraft to get these people out of Cancun, Cooper said. Weve worked crisis situations before, such as the tsunami last December and the Sharm el Sheik terrorist incidents this past summer. 

We will organize enough aircraft to get our citizens out. But this is a real challenge.

... and by sea

Cruise employees have gotten, in the words of Royal Caribbean Cruises CEO Richard Fain, unfortunately ... quite good at rearranging port calls and delaying ship turnarounds on a few days notice to avoid big hurricanes. After Katrina several lines were forced to shift entire embarkation operations to different states.

But with Hurricane Wilma it quickly became apparent that the problem was with a strategically critical ports.

The cruise ports in Cozumel were very, very badly damaged, Mexico Ministry of Tourism representative Torres told Travel Weekly. It is clear we are looking at two to three months of repairs before they are useable again.

Carnival Corp. last week dispatched its Vice President of Strategic Planning, Giora Israel, to the region to survey the damage and meet with ground staff.

We are told all the piers sustained heavy damage there, Carnivals vice president of communications Tim Gallagher said in an e-mail. We will substitute calls with other ports as we can.

Interest in Cozumel has grown steadily over the years. The increase of cruising from western Gulf Coast ports like Galveston and New Orleans gave the trend staying power.

In 2004 nearly 2.9 million cruise passengers visited Cozumel, making it the most popular port call in the Caribbean. 

Wilmas impact wasnt limited to the Yucatan, but it was most severe there. The flow of ships and passengers through Florida ports was expected to be near normal this week, and executives at Royal Caribbean Cruises said Key West was recovering nicely. But the problems for cruise ships in Cozumel are just beginning.

During a conference call with financial analysts last week, Royal Caribbean International president Adam Goldstein said there would be a medium-term impact to Cozumel.

The line received surprisingly positive reports from shore excursions operators on their infrastructure and equipment, he said.

But, he added, it was too soon to tell when Royal Caribbean would be able to return to Cozumel on a regular basis. Even if some of the piers are opened, the sheer volume of ships that visit the region would mean that there would be too many vessels for too few berths or anchor points.

That issue will become more significant in the next few weeks as ships deployed in Europe return to North America for the winter Caribbean season.

Norwegian Cruise Line, which operates two ships from Houston on Western Caribbean routes that called in Cozumel and Cancun, modified the Norwegian Dream and the Norwegian Suns itineraries to limit the calls to Belize and Roatan, Honduras.

To contact Destinations editor Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

Dan Luzadder, Nadine Godwin, Kristin OMeara Hillmann, Gay Nagle Myers and Rebecca Tobin contributed to this report.

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For more details on this article, see "Mexico operator sees firsthand damage storm can bring."

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