By TOM UHLENBROCK
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Snapping up deals that seemed almost too good to be true, tourists are returning to the resorts and beaches after a lull that followed Sept. 11.
The bonefish stopped biting, so Keith Casey waded in from the surf of the emerald Caribbean to talk about America.
"What's the mood like up there?" asked Casey, who is from the Channel Islands, near England, and was on a two-week vacation with his wife, Doreen. "The anthrax thing, that's probably some nutter.
"You know, you can't let the buggers frighten you off."
That's the same message that all of Mexico, and especially the top tourist town of Cancun, wants to send its neighbor to the north.
In the weeks after Sept. 11, which are in the off-season anyway, occupancy at some of the mega-resorts in Cancun's 14-mile "hotel zone" dropped to 20 percent and 30 percent. The sight of empty beachfronts and swimming pools sent a chill through this international resort, which the Mexican government carved from the jungles and mangrove swamps of the flat Yucatan Peninsula in the 1970s.
From 25 peasants who made a living off the sea, Cancun has grown to more than 600,000 residents, and nearly every one of them has a stake in the tourism industry. More than 100 hotels with 26,000 rooms now serve Cancun and the Riviera Maya, the 80-mile stretch of coastline from Cancun south to the Mayan ruins of Tulum.
Bargain tours: To get the tourists -- and their money -- rolling again, the resorts, airlines and tour agencies teamed up to offer rock-bottom bargains. Three nights at the top-notch Fiesta Americana Cancun for $249, including airfare. Five nights at the all-inclusive Caribbean Village Cancun for $449, including not only meals, drinks and tips but also airfare.
"Rather than sit and wait for the market to come back, we decided to go out and give people a reason to travel," said Ray Mathes of Apple Vacations, which arranges tour packages to Mexico and the rest of the Caribbean.
"Even high-end places like the Hilton and Le Meridien were down to 25 percent occupancy," said Sarah Bystrzycki of Funjet Vacations, the company that brings the most tourists to Mexico. "We had to offer some very aggressive pricing to get the market going again."
The strategy paid off. In October, many hotels were back to 60 percent occupancy, and a few were full. The 300-room Hyatt Regency, which had fallen to 15 percent occupancy, was back up to 65 percent, about normal for this time of year. Prices were back up to $85 a night.
Tourists who showed up found reservations easy to get for restaurants and snorkeling tours. Some shops offered four T-shirts for $20 and 30 percent off silver jewelry. Only Cuban cigars, such as the $9 Cohibas that Castro smokes, survived the price slashing.
"We've shown that for the right amount of money, you can get people to travel again," Mathes said. "We're ecstatic because, had we tested the waters and the response was ho-hum, that would not be a very good omen for the next six months."
Taking advantage: Bobby and Teresa Peeples of Orlando, Fla., were among the tourists who shook off doubts about flying to head out on vacation.
"I actually felt more secure having to go through all the checks at the airport," Teresa Peeples said. "They made me take off my shoes and swept that little metal detector over my bra several times."
And Europeans, who make up about 20 percent of Mexico's visitors, did not have the qualms felt by Americans.
"We've been booked since last Christmas, and nothing was going to stop us from coming," said Mary Rosie, a Scot who travels with her friend Sadie Penman. Both are 78 and were sitting out a rain delay in a resort lounge.
Tour operators said winter bookings still were down, but next spring was nearly back to normal. More reduced rates may be offered to lure winter travelers, but not the bargain-basement deals of the fall. In the long run, operators said, Mexico may be among the few destinations that gain from the Sept. 11 catastrophe, as wary vacationers abandon Europe and the Mediterranean for Mexico and the Caribbean.
"People are trying to get back to normal," Bystrzycki said. "And Mexico seems like a safer vacation."
For Martin May, the uncertain economy following Sept. 11 meant delaying repairs to the air conditioner on his 1995 Nissan, which has 175,000 miles on it. So we sweated at times as he drove up and down the coast, showing off the Mayan Riviera.
May is a supervisor with Lomas Travel. Funjet delivers travelers to Cancun, and Lomas is the ground operator that takes over from there. The uniformed reps, all bilingual, greet visitors at the airport with a sign, transport them to their hotels, arrange tours and are available around the clock.
Lomas has 400 employees and a fleet of vans and buses, including some double-deckers. May said there were poor areas in the suburbs of Cancun City on the mainland, but he added, "The only people who don't have jobs are those who go looking and pray to God not to find one."
Highlights: Cancun's hotel zone is actually on an island, joined to the mainland by bridges at each end. The island is a quarter-mile wide and shaped like the number seven. More than 30 of the elegant hotels along the strip are five or six stars, many as grandiose as anything in Las Vegas. Behind, a beach of fine beige sand lines the turquoise sea. Because the surf often can be unruly with an undertow, the hotels feature spacious swimming pools.
On the other side of the island is Nichupte Lagoon, which offers jungle tours, nature viewing, fishing and water sports.
Americans tend to stay at the resorts near the top of the island, where the shopping plazas are situated and bars such as Se & ntilde;or Frog's, Coco Bongo and La Boom pulsate until early morning. During spring break, the area is wall-to-wall partiers. Europeans favor the resorts down the coast toward Playa del Carmen, which is much smaller and a tad funkier than Cancun.
On street corners and in shopping plazas and flea markets, young men in gray military attire with automatic weapons strolled amid the crowds recently. "They're here to protect the tourists," May said. "We don't know if things are going to happen in Cancun, too. If we take care of the tourists, we take care of Cancun."
The entire Mayan Riviera was a pleasant surprise to a guy whose previous Mexican experience had been limited to border towns. There were no junked cars, no skinny dogs, no pesky peddlers. A new four-lane highway ran down the coast to Belize, its medians mowed by workers with machetes.
Mexican palace: May deposited tourists at the Moon Palace, at the far southern end of Cancun in a secluded setting surrounded by beach and bush jungle. The two-lane road in is blocked by a checkpoint -- only those on the guest list get in. The sprawling complex of three-story buildings is so huge it has two lobbies and two meandering pool areas. A trolley runs every few minutes between lobbies.
The buildings are pink stucco with red-tiled roofs and are joined by covered walkways that wind through a manicured landscape of palms. There are 2,000 rooms and 45 presidential suites.
The Moon Palace is all-inclusive. The October rate of $272 -- in-season rates are higher -- for a couple per night included meals at the seven restaurants and drinks at any of the countless bars. Taps pouring draft Dos Equis were as numerous as water fountains.
With the tourists returning, the maids, bartenders, taxi drivers and shop owners are breathing easier.
"Things are starting to get back to normal, people are starting to come, business is picking up," May said. "The compressor for my air conditioner is waiting in Mexico City. It's high on my list."