Lure of empty beaches
A recent Friday flight into Mexico is uneventful, save for more empty seats, with few passengers wearing surgical masks. Arriving at the Cancun airport, visitors fill out a form detailing possible flu symptoms. Once past customs, a masked health worker holds up an infrared thermometer to scan foreheads for fever (the process is repeated leaving the country).
The lobby at Le Meridien Cancun Resort & Spa is quiet, but a boisterous — albeit small — crowd gathers by the pool. They compare deals: one received a $100 resort credit and a free breakfast, another has a 20% spa discount. Most had booked within the past week.
Sohel Momin, a doctor from Cummins, Ga., and his girlfriend, Madelin Prendes, a radio journalist in Miami, had looked into Anguilla for the holiday weekend but were swayed by Cancun's lower prices. For $1,100, the 35-year-olds received two airfares and four nights at the hotel, including a room upgrade.
"We're getting the best of everything," Momin says. "The best beaches, the best service. There's no wait for anything."
Indeed, restaurants that usually require reservations have a handful of customers. Traffic breezes through the often-congested Kukulcan Boulevard. A line still forms outside popular Coco Bongo, but other clubs beg for patrons.
Inside Carlos 'n Charlie's bar, University of Colorado students William Ben King, Tauntiana Stauch and Wes Palazzi watch the NBA playoffs. The friends booked the trip months earlier but said Frontier Airlines wouldn't change their reservations.
"I'm not sick yet," says King, 21, who would have canceled the trip if he could. "If I go home and start dying, I'll be mad."
Says Palazzi, 21: "It's nice when it's not so crowded. You can actually relax."
That lure of empty beaches and resorts drew Tabitha McQueen to Mexico for a spur-of-the-moment getaway from Washington, D.C. She bought her plane tickets at the airport and booked her hotel just hours before arriving. She purposely didn't tell her father or work colleagues about her plans.
"I didn't want anybody to talk me out of it," she says. "If I went back to work with a cough, I didn't want anyone staring at me."
At the Royal Playa del Carmen, an all-inclusive hotel operated by the Real Resorts, tables with hand sanitizer, tissues and signs reading "Help us keep Playa del Carmen healthy" are strategically placed inside restaurants and at check-in.
But the tourists making a beeline for the swim-up bar don't seem to notice. At this 464-room resort, fewer people means better service for everyone else: 50% off readily available spa appointments, a choice of covered beachfront daybeds, no lines at the six on-site restaurants.
At the Tradewinds Pool Bar, Americans who just met toast their post-swine flu bravery (with tequila, naturally). "The price was right," says Derek Amstrong of Pepperell, Mass., who booked 10 days at the company's neighboring Gran Porto Real Playa del Carmen, but then upgraded to the Royal — for $950 total. "Places in Jamaica were charging $1,700."
Not every visitor is so satisfied: The sparse crowds have led to lower staff-customer ratios at some resorts. "We're waiting a half-hour for drinks," says Sarah Vairogs of Bloomington, Ill., who was staying at BlueBay Grand Esmeralda. "We are not getting things we should be getting."