Posted February 6, 2007 2:37 p.m. EST
Hurricane season 2005 walloped the Yucatan peninsula with Hurricane Emily in July, and while breathing a sigh of relief because storm damage wasn’t painfully extensive, Hurricane Wilma, the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, hit in October.
With disaster planning that the United States might envy, the federal government and the local hotel industry began working feverishly to make Cancun today even more luxurious and attractive than pre-Wilma.
Cancun was originally developed in the 1970s as part of a plan by Mexico’s tourism branch (Fonatur), to build major resort destinations along the Mexican coast. Cancun has since been followed by Los Cabos, Iztapa and others.
Unwittingly, Wilma was the spark for revitalization of Cancun, which was already showing some age and needed sprucing up, according to Mexican tourism officials.
The soggy mess Wilma left behind prompted an infusion of $253 million from the federal government, resulting in “the best Cancun in the city’s 30-year history,” according to John McCarthy, managing director for Fonatur.
Praise for Recovery
“One year after Wilma, and Cancun looks incredible,” said Anna Paradela, senior sales manager for Palace Resorts, which operates several hotels along the Yucatan Peninsula. “The city’s completely back, and it is ready for tourists.”
Resorts and Fonatur have been concentrating on making a better, more upscale Cancun. The city wants to be known for more than just its crazy college spring break crowd, so resorts in the hotel zone are raising the bar on luxury.
The goal: increase the $15 million spent daily in Cancun by the more than 3 million annual visitors.
With its sandy beaches and near perfect weather (hurricanes excepted), the Yucatan resorts know they have a tourist paradise.
The resorts along the Riviera Maya, named the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, couldn’t agree more.
“You think of Katrina and what it did to New Orleans, and you see that a lot of it still looks the same,” said Paradela, who didn’t want the Yucatan to suffer the same fate.
The Riviera “officially” begins in Cancun and reaches all the way south to Tulum, which took more of a beating when Emily barreled through.
While ports like those on the island of Cozumel were able to re-open about three weeks after Wilma, some hotels along the Riviera Maya scrambled to accommodate travelers.
After the hurricanes, the Mexican government quickly set the goal to have the area be 80 percent operational by Dec. 15. By Nov. 5, just two weeks after Wilma made landfall, some 18,582 rooms in the Mayan Riviera (74 percent of the total) were open to tourists.
For Cancun specifically, it took longer. Some hotels, such as Beach Palace Resort, had to be demolished and are wrapping up the final touches for 2007.
Fonatur Regional Director Ricardo Alvarado said that the approximately US$20 million in funds earmarked for Cancun’s facelift are being put to work repairing sidewalks and bike paths, repaving streets, installing signage and hurricane-resistant street lighting, creating gardens and planting new palm trees along the city’s famous shoreside avenue, Kukulcan Boulevard.
Cancun’s famous 7.5-mile stretch of beautiful beach has been restored. In addition to the restored shoreline, Cancun boasts all-new signage, vegetation, bicycle paths and the most modern technology in urban infrastructure and fixtures, such as light-emitting diode lighting.
It also looks forward to the construction of an environmentally conscious park that will feature a zoo and a socially sensitive civic, financial and cultural center that McCarthy calls a “city within a city.”
Cancun will also have a new half-mile long bridge across the Bojorquez Lagoon to alleviate the traffic from Punta Cancun.
For 2025, Fonatur expects Cancun to offer 110,000 rooms, receive upwards of 11 million tourists annually and generate US$10 billion in revenue.
Palace Resorts Ready
Ready to greet all those vacationers are resorts like Palace Resorts, a company that operates nine resorts in the Riviera Maya, Cancun and Cozumel region.
“As you know, Wilma affected us all,” said Paradela of Palace Resorts. “The three hotels in the hotel zone (Beach, Cancun and Sun resorts – all AAA approved) were damaged and, immediately, we started to think about working to open them as soon as possible. But then we decided these hotels needed refurbishment.”
With that, the other Palace Resorts outside the Hotel Zone, such as Moon Palace, which is closer to the airport, began accommodating most of the company’s clients while Palace began giving a new look to the three resorts. Cancun and Sun resorts were slated to open Dec. 24, 2006, just in time for the holiday crowd.
Beach Resort, being built from the ground up, will be a completely brand new hotel in all senses and is scheduled to open April 1.
The new look at Cancun Palace will include a more modern, more minimalistic look, said Paradela. But where luxury becomes obvious is in the amenities.
“All rooms will feature double Jacuzzis, and many will feature ocean views,” she said. Rooms will also include flat screen LCD TVs, turndown service, bathrobes and slippers and 24/7 room service – all proof that Cancun really is going upscale.
Before Wilma, Cancun Palace’s spa offerings had been squeezed into the beauty salon area. Now, with spas becoming a top reason tourists pick a destination, spa facilities have been dramatically upgraded.
There are now 13 treatment rooms, including two couple’s suites and one master suite with a Jacuzzi. Additionally, there are five outdoor massage rooms, including one outdoor couples massage room.
When Beach Palace opens in April, those 287 rooms will feature the same luxurious amenities in a high-rise setting.
“Cancun is back better than ever,” said Paradela. “We can’t wait for people to come back and get to know the destination again.”
From the little fishing village it was 30 years ago, Cancun has come a long way, making a return visit just like falling in love all over again.