November 21, 2005
Mexico’s Cozumel, Storm Survivor, Awaits Tourists
By Catherine Bremer
COZUMEL, Mexico -- At first glance, Mexico's Cozumel island -- a Caribbean jewel ringed with coral reefs -- looks like the site of a nuclear explosion.
Chunks of concrete pier have been swept away, palm-thatched beachside bars are stripped to skeletons, lush forest has turned into dry brown kindling and huge bites have been taken out of concrete buildings.
Yet unlike nearby Cancun, whose high-rise resorts are nearly all shut for repairs after their beaches were sucked away by Hurricane Wilma last month, many of Cozumel's hotels are open. Its best white sand beaches -- which are natural rather than man-made like Cancun's -- remain intact.
All the island needs now is for the tourists to return.
"We have hotels, restaurants, beaches and diving, we're all ready, we just desperately need tourists," said Kristi Groff, a diving instructor at the Pascual Scuba Center.
"We depend on package tourists and most have canceled their holidays until February. We're dying for this to end."
Wilma hung over Mexico's Yucatan peninsula for three long days, pounding resorts along the Caribbean coast.
With the flow of tourists cut off since then, the region is losing millions of dollars a day in what is normally the busiest season of the year.
The ancient Maya came to Cozumel to worship the goddess Ixchel. Later, 17th century pirates sheltered in its sandy coves. Today it is a favorite of divers and cruise ships.
CRUISE SHIPS STAY AWAY
A handful of cruise ships returned to Cozumel last week, but more rain from Tropical Storm Gamma drove them away again. Tourist divers are also scarce.
"We are taking out a couple of people a day. But we should be taking 30 to 40," said Guillermo Ramirez at Dive Paradise.
Travel agents are reluctant to send tour groups back with many of Cozumel's main attractions shut, such as the Chankanab marine wildlife park which has been smashed beyond recognition. Its dolphins, who sheltered from Wilma in the pool of a swanky hotel, have been transferred to the mainland for now.
"We used to have 1,000 visitors a day but there's nothing left. Just sea, rocks and rubble," said security guard Joaquin Chuc at the park entrance.
Some chunks of coastline were ravaged when Wilma drove a sea surge inland. Shops are boarded up and many beachfront hotel complexes need months to repair.
Hotels are offering discounts because of malfunctioning air conditioning and phone lines, and the few guests politely ignore the tape holding the window panes together.
Yet locals are upbeat.
"No one has been laid off. Hotels are still paying their staff, and the government has hired taxi drivers and bar staff to help with the clean up," said Eddie Rosales, who spent two weeks cleaning up debris and disinfecting contaminated water.
"If we work together, we know tourism will recover."
Construction workers bused in from around Mexico repair hotels and restaurants. The whine of drills and tap of hammers fills the air.
At Playa San Francisco, laborers far outnumber the four Mexican tourists on the beach, but the newly reopened bar pumps up the reggae to drown them out as it serves up cocktails.
"We heard about the hurricane and thought it would be nice and quiet if we came now," said Sonia Fernandez, collecting shells at the water's edge. "It's pretty here. It's perfect."