Mexican authorities were still assessing the damage from Hurricane Wilma as they worked to get aid to the storm-ravaged Yucatan Peninsula, but the country's tourism minister said the region stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars.
The storm hovered over the coastal paradise for days, flooding resort hotels and reducing stores and businesses to heaps of twisted metal. Tourism Secretary Rodolfo Elizondo estimated the area would lose $800 million in tourism revenue between now and December.
He said that about 38 percent of all international tourists to Mexico visit Cancun, the Mayan Riviera or Cozumel.
Tourism is Mexico's fourth-largest industry and pumped about $10.8 billion into the country's economy last year, according to the Mexican Tourism Secretariat. That's almost 10 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product.
It's one of the country's largest sources of income, behind oil, industry and money sent from other countries.
"This is having trickle-down effects with people saying 'are we going there over spring break,' or 'should we go somewhere else for spring break,' that sort of thing," Chicago travel agent Mike O'Malley said. He said his small agency was working with about 10 couples who had planned to travel to the region this week. Most were switching destinations rather than staying home.
"People have planned a honeymoon and they still want to go on a honeymoon or they've taken time off of work and they don't want to sit home for a week and they're looking for alternatives," he said.
One of those couples, Timothy Olsen and his fiance, Gina Valentini, planned to go to the Mayan Riviera after their November 13 wedding. "We're going on our honeymoon and don't necessarily want an adventure as much as we want to relax" after the long, stressful wedding process, he said.
He said they had trip insurance, so they were thinking about going instead to Jamaica, the Dominican Republic or maybe taking a cruise. Olsen said they were disappointed at first, but they realized that "the honeymoon is one thing that we've been able to keep in the low stress, since it's sort of a reward."
Dallas agent Nancy Strong said Cancun is a popular destination for her clients because it's so close.
"It's an ideal quick vacation getaway out of this town. You're guaranteed the sun and the beach, a short flight and you don't get off the plane and have to drive for two hours," she said.
Strong said about 30 clients have canceled trips and are asking her to make new arrangements.
That could add up to a big loss, Banco de Mexico estimated that international tourists spend an average of $698 each.
More than 15 million tourists visited the country in the first eight months of the year, the bank said.
Mexican President Vicente Fox predicted that the hotels would be up and running in time for the busy winter season.
"I am absolutely sure and confident that if today we are at zero, not one single hotel operating, within two months we will see this rise to 80 percent," Fox said during a weekend tour of Cancun, reports CNN. I.L.
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