In Mexico, tourists take advantage of hotel and resort deals

Diana Flores eases into an empty swinging poolside daybed, staring contentedly at the turquoise Caribbean Sea. "I feel like I'm in a Corona commercial," the Los Angeles resident says, beckoning a waiter.

Flores, 52, and her husband had priced out nearby Laguna Beach and Palm Springs for the long Memorial Day weekend. But nothing beat the last-minute deals they found in a Mexico reeling from the economic affects of the H1N1 virus. So just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had lifted its advisory against non-essential travel south of the border, Flores booked her four-night trip to Le Meridien Cancun Resort & Spa.

"A lot of people were surprised," says Flores, who works with her husband in a family-owned automotive business. "When it comes to things like (the swine flu), I'm not frightened. I just wanted the fresh air."

The Mexican government — and the tourism industry, which is the third-largest segment of the country's economy — desperately hopes more people will follow Flores' lead. To that end, a $92 million public relations campaign aimed at improving the country's image has been launched, and more efforts are on the way to recapture the foreigners who fled when the World Health Organization raised the alert about H1N1 in late April.

In Cancun, most hotels and resorts are offering packages and deals to boost occupancy rates that dropped as low as 20% in early May. The bargains seem to be having an effect: The occupancy rate for Cancun's hotel zone rose to 43% over Memorial Day weekend, but those numbers are still far from the 85% posted at the same time in 2008.

"Our main concern is to bring back the airlines," says Jesus Almaguer, CEO of the Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau. While several American carriers cut their capacity, large European tour operators such as Thomas Cook canceled all trips until this past week — leading Cancun to lose an estimated $20 million every five days for much of May, Almaguer says.

Besides increasing airlift, the Cancun visitors bureau has been filming testimonials from visitors already in Mexico, hoping that word of mouth will entice last-minute summer bookings. Europeans have long booked holidays with little lead time; since the economic downturn last year, Americans and Canadians have adopted similar patterns, Almaguer says.

"We expect the numbers to get higher by July," he says.

It's the same story on the Riviera Maya, the 81-mile stretch of resorts and beach towns that start south of Cancun and end in Tulum. There, tourism officials have launched a website, holarivieramaya.com, and are using social media such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Flickr to get out word about deals at the area's 37,000 hotel rooms.

Recovery won't be instantaneous; current occupancy hovers around 27%, says Javier Aranda, general director of the Riviera Maya Destination Marketing Office. But this week, the first cruise ship returned to Cozumel, an island just off the Riviera Maya coast, bringing 2,446 passengers. Two more ships with 4,752 more passengers arrive next week; the three ships together are expected by bring in $580,000, Mexico's Minister of Tourism Rodolfo Elizondo said in a press release.

By October, when cold weather in Canada triggers the Riviera Maya's lucrative winter season, Aranda hopes that tourism is close to normal.

"It will be a process," he says. "But there are a lot of values here that they couldn't find in another destination."

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