Attacks-weary travelers look for carefree escape to sunny beaches

Tourism in Mexico revives

Posted: Thursday, December 20, 2001

TULUM, Mexico -- Only weeks ago, Leila Voight was trying to persuade hesitant tourists to visit her secluded cabanas south of Cancun. Now, they are begging her for rooms.

Her e-mail is clogged with as many as 30 messages a day from New Yorkers who live near ground zero and others who want to trade nightly news reports on anthrax scares and terrorism attacks for pina coladas and strolls on the beach.

Hotel owners and government officials across Mexico say tourism has largely returned to normal after dropping 12 percent after the Sept. 11 attacks. The resort of Acapulco has more international flights than before the terror attacks, including new arrivals from Chicago and Dallas.

Mexico is one of the few countries to have seen such a recovery.

Europe and Asia are still struggling. Italian Tourism and Hotel Association president Bernabo Bocca said the attacks on the United States have cost the hotel sector $918 million, mostly because of the ''loss of rich American and Japanese clients.''

In Spain, 38 percent fewer Americans visited after Sept. 11, and the number of visitors in Singapore dropped by nearly 11 percent from the corresponding month a year earlier, with arrivals from the United States plunging more than 40 percent.

Even Puerto Rico -- which offered free flights from some U.S. cities if people booked hotel rooms for at least five days -- hasn't totally recovered.

Mexico appears to have a combination that is attractive to attacks-weary travelers: It's cheap, safe and -- for U.S. residents -- close to home.

''Americans are not going to fly to Europe,'' said Carlos Velazquez, director general of the Acapulco Convention and Visitors Bureau. ''It's not nice to say this, but we can take advantage of the problem.''

Facing a possible crisis in its third-largest source of revenue, Mexico launched its most aggressive tourism campaign ever after Sept. 11. It spent $35 million to promote mountain resorts and beach getaways in the United States, Mexico and Canada with the slogan ''Mexico, closer than ever.''

Security was tightened at vacation spots across Mexico and the paperwork needed to drive south across the border was eased.

In recent weeks, throngs of Americans have returned to Cancun's white sand beaches, which were all but empty after Sept. 11.

Settling into a lounge chair after a swim in the ocean, Deirdre McCaffrey said that after losing her job at energy trading company Enron in Houston, she wanted bright sunshine and aquamarine waters -- not more terrorism reports.

''We didn't watch the news all day yesterday,'' she said. ''You have no idea what's happening. You can just lay on the beach and not worry about any of those things.''

She chose Mexico over the Caribbean because it was much cheaper: 20,000 frequent flier miles and a $70 hotel suite she could share with several other friends, also recently fired.

''We had to get out of Houston,'' he said. ''We'll all be OK. We just needed to get out of town for a while, lay on the beach and drink some tequila.''

Mexico City travel agent Luisa Koch said many Americans are choosing Mexico because of the recent recession. ''If you have American money, it's worth a lot more here,'' than in the Caribbean, she said.

For Krista Bahnsen, vacationing in Cancun with her husband, Mexico's shared border with the United States convinced her to head south.

''If we got stuck down here, we could always drive home,'' she said.

Roughly 80 miles south along the Caribbean coast, crowds of tourists listen to guides or swim at the rocky beach below Tulum's Mayan ruins.

Sitting on a log in the shadow of the main temple, Jon Orjala and his wife Nancy said they probably wouldn't have considered any place other than Mexico to celebrate their anniversary.

''You don't feel like you are in the wrong place,'' said Orjala, an orthopedic surgeon from Ada, Okla., who brought his young son to Mexico because he didn't want to be separated if there were more attacks. ''There's not really any kind of threat here.''

A few miles away, off a dirt road in the jungle, Voight said her cabanas have already housed urban refugees from New York who wanted a brief escape from turmoil at home. One woman who was on the 25th floor of the World Trade Center during the attacks came down for Thanksgiving.

Although Voight had some cancelations immediately after Sept. 11, her Las Ranitas cabanas are now booked solid -- and she filled them up about 10 days earlier than normal for the season.

''Now, for some reason, everybody wants to come,'' she said. ''We have people from Tribeca calling to say, 'It's sad here, and it's smoky.'''

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