Caribbean jewel glistening again
CANCUN, Mexico – Carl Johnson says his heart missed a beat when he saw the beach outside his Cancun timeshare.
He was expecting little sand a year after the resort was savaged by the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record. But what he saw took him by complete surprise.
His patch of golden-white sand had tripled in size, stretching a gaping 140 feet toward the crystal-clear Caribbean water.
“After the initial shock, I just burst out laughing. It is so weird when you are used to seeing something and then it completely changes,” says Johnson, a 50-year old aircraft mechanic from Chicago.
Cancun’s new beach, built by pumping 96 million cubic feet of sand from the ocean floor, is the highlight of an extreme makeover the resort has gone through since it was punished by Hurricane Wilma on Oct. 21, 2005.
Mexican tourist officials are promoting their Caribbean haven as being fully revamped and made bigger, better and more glitzy than it was before Wilma. Public and private investment for the rebuilding has totaled $1.5 billion, they say.
In many aspects, the reconstruction has been a Herculean success, letting most tourists enjoy their holidays oblivious to the destruction that wracked the resort a year ago. Bikini-clad sunbathers line the beaches, honeymooning couples sip margaritas in hotel pools and crowds of red-faced revelers croak karaoke songs down at Señor Frog’s disco.
But the devastating power of Wilma wrought some damage that could not possibly be fixed within 12 months, and signs of the wreckage can still be found in corners of the Caribbean retreat.
Wilma came with little warning, swelling from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane in less than 24 hours, then pounding Cancun for two days and nights, felling roofs, hurling palm trees and submerging streets in stinking flood water.
When the storm finally retreated, an eight-mile stretch of beach was almost completely washed away, exposing a line of ragged rocks.
However, worldwide beach erosion has led to rapid advances in the techniques for its reclamation, and Belgian company Jan de Nul made Cancun a showcase for its newest technology.
Two ships sucked up sand 20 miles off the Mexican coast, carried it to the shore and used colossal pipes to lay down half a mile of beach a week.
“The white beaches are what Cancun is all about. So we wanted to make sure we were getting that same silky sand that people love, and a lot more of it than before,” says Patricia Lopez of Cancun’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
The new beach is an average of 140 feet wide, compared to an average of 70 feet before Wilma, officials say.
The resort’s avenues have been lined with 6,000 new, full-grown palm trees and almost all the shops and restaurants have reopened.
However, there are still sporadic construction sites in the row of nearly 100 towering hotels that fill the Cancun skyline.
About 10 percent of the hotels are still having work done, with the last scheduled to be finished by the end of 2007.
Diana Cedillo, 43, of Laredo, Texas, booked a room next to a hotel crawling with construction workers. But she says the work didn’t bother her.
“I haven’t heard a thing. And as there are no tourists in the next-door hotel, then our bit of beach is that bit more exclusive,” she said, sunbathing on a tranquil stretch of sand.
However, Scott Gardner said his parents came to the Cancun Palace to find it was under construction and were shipped off down the coast to the Moon Palace.
“It’s a bit of a pain because I have a 45-minute drive from my time share to be with them,” said Gardner, 39, of Washington, D.C.
Some resorts used the opportunity to remodel and upgrade their premises. The Ritz Carlton invested $15 million to expand the size of its rooms, add tennis courts and build a culinary center before opening in September.
“We thought that if we are going to rebuild, then let’s make it better. If it takes 11 months, then so be it,” said marketing director Rafael Vazquez.
Wilma has also left scars in the nearby jungle. Thousands of trees were ripped out of the ground and thrown into dense piles that exploded into forest fires during the summer heat. Environmentalists say the woodland will take decades to fully recover.
Yet there are still millions of acres of jungle for tourists to visit, and the forest’s Mayan ruins were untouched.
The biggest problem remaining for the tourist industry is a lack of cruise ship piers on the nearby island of Cozumel, one of the world’s busiest cruise ports. For now, the big ships will be moored offshore, with most visitors ferried into ports on smaller boats.
One of the main piers should be finished by the end of the year, and the other will be completed sometime in 2007, officials said.
Tourists have responded well to the rebuilding of Mexico’s Caribbean coast, with their numbers rising dramatically as the spring and summer months went on.
By August, Cancun hotels were filled to 79 percent capacity – a drop from 86 percent in 2005, but an encouraging number under the circumstances.
Cancun resident Maria Ortiz, 41, says those who live there deserve some of the credit. Ortiz joined thousands of residents in cleaning garbage off the streets after Wilma, and she then helped with construction at the hotel where she normally works as a chef.
“All we have here is tourism. That is what we all live by,” Ortiz says.
“So we gave everything to get those tourists back. We all wanted to make Cancun live again.”
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