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."
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."
Outside of the resorts, Playa del Carmen boasts a sophisticated nightlife scene, with swank Miami-style lounges, as well as the area's primary shopping district. The crowds along Quinta (Fifth) Avenue are decidedly slim, and even the most popular restaurants have empty tables.
Kanoena Cook and Jason Nazario of New York were among the few Americans sipping drinks at Hotel Deseo's rooftop pool bar. "We flew in Thursday and it felt like a ghost town," says Nazario, 40. "You feel bad. These people rely on tourism."
Still, the couple who booked in February were enjoying an uncrowded Playa so much that they are looking at returning in the fall, possibly in lieu of a cruise. "Because it's quiet, you get a chance to talk to the taxi drivers and bartenders," says Cook, 32. "For us, it's a better experience."
Follow Chris Gray Faust at twitter.com/CAroundTheWorld.