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
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
news for a region that generates almost half of Mexicos $11 billion
annual tourism revenue.
director of the Cozumel Tourism Promotion Board, said electricity
had been restored to parts of Cozumel by the morning of Oct.
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.
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
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
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.
reopened Wednesday with the aid of emergency generators, but the
airfield lost its control tower, limiting flights to daylight
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
On Monday last week,
Snisky said Funjet armed four of its top executives with satellite
phones and flew them into Merida, obtaining special government
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
... and by
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
Carnival Corp. last
week dispatched its Vice President of Strategic Planning, Giora
Israel, to the region to survey the damage and meet with ground
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
That issue will
become more significant in the next few weeks as ships deployed in
Europe return to North America for the winter Caribbean
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.
Destinations editor Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].
Nadine Godwin, Kristin OMeara Hillmann, Gay Nagle Myers and Rebecca
Tobin contributed to this report.
For more details
on this article, see "Mexico operator sees firsthand damage storm can