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A vendor sells his wares at the Hotel Fiesta Americana in Cancun, Mexico.
A vendor sells his wares at the Hotel Fiesta Americana in Cancun, Mexico. (Jonathan Wiggs/Boston Globe staff photo)
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Forces of Nature

Wilma hurt but tourism is the pulse that keeps beating

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / April 30, 2006

In the hot-sweat spin of afternoon, when brown arms pave, plaster, and paint near bunkers of crumbled concrete and placid swimming pool retreats, it can be hard to tell what is destruction and what is progress.

Yet six months after Hurricane Wilma delivered 40 hours of devastating wind and water, there is so much movement toward idyllic order that it seems only natural to rebuild, to put back exactly what was, and more, as though the hurricane, not this place, were the aberration.

The truth is, though, that warm winds and water have always conspired to send powerful cyclones spinning across the Caribbean toward the eastern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula.

It is Cancun, a vacation destination sprung from sand and strategy barely three decades ago, that is the phenomenon, a many-headed tropical beast feeding on mangroves and clear water. The 12-plus miles of the island hotel zone are home to more than 60 resorts, hundreds of restaurants, and nightclubs that can hold thousands of partiers at a time. Three million people come here each year from the United States and Canada, but also from London, Tokyo, and Abu Dhabi.

Attack all of this with the 140-mile-per-hour gusts of a hurricane, cut off a head or two of the reveling organism, and more grow back, bigger and stronger.

Last October Wilma sent thousands of vacationers to school gymnasiums and movie theaters-turned-shelters in the low city to the west, then thrashed the secluded luxury of the Ritz-Carlton and the booze-until-you-puke chaos of Oasis Cancun. The hurricane washed away the beach in front of Le Blanc, battered shop stalls full of cheap maracas, and flooded canal-side boutiques selling Hugo Boss in La Isla Shopping Village. It tore palm trees from along Kukulcan Boulevard and palapa umbrellas from poolside after poolside.

No matter. By last month, more than half of Cancun's 27,000 hotel rooms were open for business. Parents idled with young children in a pool at Fiesta Americana Condesa Cancun. Sun-baked couples enjoyed quiet conversation and grilled lobster for $75 a plate at Lorenzillo's, a wooden-decked restaurant set above the calm waters of Nichupte Lagoon. College students from Kansas, Wisconsin, and Kentucky, if fewer than in other years, chugged yards of beer onstage at Señor Frog's and ogled tightly clad dancers on the bar outside The City, a multilevel nightclub that had reopened only days before. Tourism officials were estimating confidently that, save a few lagging hotels, Cancun would be near capacity for the height of hurricane season this fall.

Even the wind-bombed facade of Grand Aqua Hotel, one of several still-closed palaces along the 6-mile section most battered by the hurricane, a stretch dubbed ''Ground Zero," boasted a promise. A high-hung banner proclaimed: ''There is only one thing better than building the most beautiful hotel. Doing it again."

It helps to remember that in the early 1970s there was little here but white sand, coastal mangrove swamps, and jungle. A village, Puerto Juarez, was home to several thousand people who made their living from the sea.

Mexican officials and private developers, building upon success in Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, and other Pacific coast resorts, turned toward this Caribbean outpost, home to Mayans for millennia.

A long island shaped like a crooked seven between Nichupte Lagoon and the sea, would become home to the resorts. It had a Mayan name, ''Kan Kun," said to mean ''nest of snakes."

Cancun's first hotel opened in 1974; by 1988, there were 12,000 rooms. That fall, Hurricane Gilbert hit. No matter. The number of hotel rooms more than doubled by 2005, with the island paved to within a few miles of its southern end when Wilma came ashore.

On a March afternoon when the sun hung high and a steady but kind breeze blew from the east, a scattering of tourists took shelter amid the stores of an air-conditioned shopping center in the heart of the hotel district. Down one long corridor, a shop had T-shirts sporting slogans. One example: ''It's not a beer belly. It's a fuel tank for a sex machine."

Upstairs, past an Internet cafe, Rafael Del Rio, an executive with Palace Resorts and a 25-year veteran of the Cancun experience, sat at his desk in a windowless office. Del Rio recalled a summit in the early 1980s that brought President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to Cancun, boosting the young resort's international reputation.

Del Rio talked about the commercial success of hotels like Cancun Palace, with 800 rooms, and Moon Palace, with 2,100. He detailed hotelier predictions for increasing profits each of the next three years.

''It's better than we had ever thought it would be," Del Rio said.

Leisure fuels industry here, and Del Rio and others know the predictions of international research groups: As economies globalize and specialize, more people in wealthy nations will have more money and more time to play with it. In 1950, roughly 25 million people traveled from one country to another; by 2020, the number is expected to reach 1.6 billion.

Convention officials hope to use that global traffic to reach beyond their US base. They are wooing businesses from Asia, South America, Europe, and the Mideast, touting the Cancun area as a central meeting ground.

And developers here pursue an audacious idea, scoffed at by some, banked on by others: Extend Cancun's resort row along more than 100 miles of coastline to the south, traversing the already heavily developed Maya Riviera. By 2025, if big money has its way, the coastline could be home to more than 240,000 hotel rooms.

No need to look so far for the insatiable beast: Between the low-slung city and the start of Kukulcan Boulevard bulldozers follow dirt roads into an 800-acre swath of mangroves. The site, called Puerto Cancun, will soon host marinas, condos, and resorts. It is, promotional brochures note, ''the last undeveloped region in Cancun."

It can be hard to find voices calling for a halt to all of this. But they are there, even in the center of the city of quickly built neighborhoods now home to more than 500,000 Mexicans, in places such as the courtyard of El Rey del Caribe, a small eco-hotel. Araceli Domínguez, El Rey's owner, described the short life of the hotel zone and the city that serves it. She noted four distinct periods: discovery; development; overdevelopment, fueled at times by money from drug traffickers; and finally chaos, in which drugs and prostitution are common.

Domínguez quickly ticked off more problems of sprawl outpacing strategy: Money for education and public health is too little. Trash is too much. Sewage flows into the sea.

Last year, Domínguez was jailed for five days for protesting the delivery of dolphins from the Solomon Islands to a national park south of Cancun. As head of Grupo Ecologista del Mayab, she fights development of the mangrove swamps down the street, and of the coastline north and south.

''As an urban program, it's just crazy," Domínguez said. ''It's a self-destruction model. An ecosystem needs to breathe."

But nature stands little chance against the social forces at play here. Too many poor people need the money of too many rich people. Tourism is an engine of the Mexican economy, third behind oil and the money sent home by workers in the United States. So migrants still come to pursue the ''Caribbean Dream," with more than 100 arriving each day from big cities and remote stretches of Veracruz, Tabasco, Yucatan, and Chiapas, hoping for work.

Take the three-block walk from Domínguez's hotel to the Puerto Cancun site, where a team of 13 men chip stones with hammers six days a week to build a border wall for the roads heading into the mangroves. At night, they sleep together in a shack a few hundred feet away. Each earns $44 a day, more than twice the wage they make at home in Merida, the capital of neighboring Yucatan state.

Follow the four-lane highway north along the mangroves, then turn inland amid the dusty grid of city blocks. In front of a small compound that measures perhaps 20 feet by 40, sacks of concrete and sprigs of rebar wait to repair Wilma's damage, while three generations of a family sleep in a one-room home. The matriarch, Alberta Rosado Herrera, says this is better than what she left in Veracruz in 1985. Here, at least, her family owns the land.

On a nearby corner, Emiliano Pech, 30, stands in his pressed white bellhop uniform, waiting for a bus to begin the 90-minute ride to a hotel in Puerto Madero, on the Maya Riviera. The $10 he makes each day, Pech says, provides a comfortable life for his children.

And back a few blocks, past a food market and a tire shop, a young woman walks from home to home with a handful of red pens. Doris Barrios Moreno, 19, came to Cancun from Tapachula, Chiapas -- ''trouble with my father," she says -- only one month before.

Moreno has full black hair and an honest smile. She explains that there are ways for a woman to make much more money in Cancun, but she wants a better life.

So she knocks on door after door with her $2 pens, hoping to earn a living not from the well-heeled tourists come for escape, but from those who serve them. Her customers can spare little, if anything. But she continues to knock and hold out her pens, ready to make a pitch.

''I need to convince them," she says, ''because I need to eat."

Contact Tom Haines at thaines@globe.com.

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