WILMA struck Mexico’s Caribbean coast on October 21 last year, registering at one point as the strongest storm on record and devastating the beach front of Cancun and Cozumel.
The death toll could have been a lot higher than five. Up to 9,000 British tourists holed up in shelters while the hurricane took two days to pass over. Waves swept as high as the third floor of hotels.
People emerged to find buildings flattened, power lines down and more than eight miles of beach in Cancun swept away.
The media homed in on the suffering of stranded holidaymakers, of whom almost 300 are involved in a potential class action against several UK operators.
But four months on, Playa del Carmen – south of Cancun – is packed and Cancun itself is preparing for the summer.
Exsus Central America product manager Lucy Clark was in the Yucatan area in early February, checking the coast south of Cancun – the Riviera Maya. “I couldn’t believe how many workers there were, day and night,” she said.
“The beaches all looked incredible. Those around Playa del Carmen were gorgeous – some bigger than before.
“The hotels were 80% to 90% occupied and Playa del Carmen was heaving. You would barely know Wilma had happened. I would go there on holiday tomorrow.”
However, this long stretch of coast escaped lightly compared with the densely populated Cancun. Mexico Tourism Board UK director Manuel Diaz Cebrian said: “Wilma hit Cancun, Cozumel and Isla Mujeres very strongly. It moved at just 3km an hour, so it was deadly.
“There was very serious damage and no electricity. The sand in Cancun almost disappeared.”
The authorities initially tried to have everything back up by December 15, the start of the peak season, but thought better of the deadline – although the electricity and drainage were working by then.
“I’m glad we didn’t relaunch Cancun by December 15,” said Cebrian. He sees the destruction as a chance to rebuild the resort and modify its image. “It was 30 years old. Now it is going to have better hotels,” he said.
Belgian maritime engineering firm Jan De Nul is dredging sand from the seabed to replace the lost beaches, a task due for completion on April 30.
In the meantime, the tourism board’s figure for rooms available in Cancun is 35% – about a third currently open.
“We will have the beaches finished by the end of April and be at 80% capacity by May or June,” he said. “The remaining hotels will open for December.”
The UK’s major tour operators have all resumed their programmes and Monarch’s weekly charters from Gatwick and Manchester restarted on February 5.
First Choice is flying weekly from Gatwick and Manchester and long-haul product manager Marie Wilson visited the resort at the end of January.
Thomson Caribbean product manager Zoe Illingworth said: “Over 80% of our programme is back on sale. Most clients are going to Riviera Maya and Playa del Carmen, which is wholly up and running.”
A spokeswoman for Thomas Cook said: “The majority of properties in our programme are back on sale and have all had health and safety checks.”
MyTravel has moved one of its flights from Cancun while it awaits the resort’s full restoration. “We’ve made changes to our programme,” said a spokesperson. “But the recovery in Cancun has been extraordinary.”
Cosmos reinstated its Mexico programme when Monarch resumed flying and reports: “We’re operating to all our Cancun hotels.”
Cebrian admitted: “It’s not yet Cancun as it was before the hurricane, but the recovery is fast.”