The Category 4 storm, moving westward across the Caribbean toward the Yucatan Peninsula, brings up memories of Hurricane Wilma, which ravaged Cancun in 2005. The local tourism industry has spread farther south since that time. Hurricane Dean appears to be aiming one of the newer resorts, Majahual, about 250 kilometers, or 150 miles, south of Cancun.
"Yes, we are afraid," said construction worker Pedro Kanche, as he nailed boards against the windows of a shop in Cancun late Sunday. "The truth is that a lot of people lost jobs" during Wilma, he said, "and tourism still hasn't recovered."
As hurricane preparations were being rushed to completion farther south on the coast, Florida Volynskaya, 24, of Baltimore, Maryland, lay on the floor at the Cancun airport, planning to spend the night in hopes of getting a flight out.
"We just wanted to get out anywhere," said Volynskaya. "We really didn't want to be in a shelter." During Wilma, thousands of tourists spent several days in crowded, sometimes unhygienic improvised shelters at schools in Cancun.
Cancun appeared largely empty of tourists; thousands had been ferried out on flights during previous days. Quintana Roo state governor, Felix Gonzalez Canto, had asked airlines and travel agencies not to bring more tourists to Cancun until the hurricane has passed.
"It's preferable to lose two days of hotel occupancy rather than face a larger problem of having to take a large number of tourists to shelters," Gonzalez Canto said in a public meeting on storm preparation.
He also ordered the evacuation of low-lying islands on the Caribbean coast, like Isla Mujeres, near Cancun.
American Kimberly Kubalek, 40, was one of the few tourists eating at one of Cancun's usually crowded nightspots. Kubalek, who had just been evacuated from Isla Mujeres, planned to take a bus to the inland colonial city of Merida before the storm hits.
"I knew it (Dean) was coming this way, and I still made my reservations, but then I got evacuated anyway," Kubalek said, finishing her meal at the Ranita Poblana restaurant. "I got there Saturday, and on Sunday they told us we had to leave. ... I was looking forward to just lying in the sand."
Wilma slammed into Cancun on Oct. 21, 2005, filling hotel lobbies with shattered metal, marble, glass and muck, and washing away so much sand that beaches were reduced to thin strips. The storm caused US$3 billion (EUR 2.2 billion) in damage, the largest insured losses in Mexican history.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Dean was projected to reach the most dangerous classification, Category 5, with sustained winds of 160 mph (260 kph), before plowing into the Yucatan peninsula on Tuesday.
Residents of Cancun and nearby resorts - still rebuilding nearly two years after Wilma - were preparing for a rough ride.
"It's sad to see that just when they're getting back on their feet again, a lot of the people, a lot of the community they're going to get hit again," said English teacher and Cancun resident Neil Miller, 42, from Seattle, Washington.
"I think especially the middle class and lower class people, I think they've suffered quite a bit" because of Wilma, Miller said. "Now they're going to suffer a lot, because a lot of them, they don't have packages, they don't have unemployment benefits, so they're just out of work."
Dean killed at least eight people as it moved across the Caribbean but Jamaica avoided the direct hit when the storm passed to the south Sunday night.
There were no deaths reported in Jamaica, but the storm uprooted trees, flooded streets and tore the roofs off many homes, businesses and a prison block. No prisoners escaped.
Also Sunday, governments in Central America declared their nations on alert for the secondary effects of Dean, whose outer bands were already dumping rain and whipping up surf on their Caribbean coastlines.