Published January 13, 2015
Thousands of haggard tourists, fed up after five days in hot and dirty emergency shelters, battled for airline and bus seats out of Mexico's hurricane-battered Caribbean resorts on Tuesday.
Officials said they still had no solid estimate of the damage caused by Hurricane Wilma (search), which lashed the coastline Friday and Saturday and wiped out the heart of Mexico's $11 billion foreign tourism industry, even washing away Cancun's famed white beaches.
President Vicente Fox's office said that about 22,000 foreign tourists remained in the area, down from a peak of almost 40,000.
Thousands of tourists rushed to Cancun's international airport after officials said Tuesday that 27 flights would be leaving.
Mark Davis of Shelby Township, Mich., said he'd paid $50 for a taxi to the airport — at least $10 more than the standard fare. "That was the hurricane discount," he joked while stuck in line along the road.
"How much worse can it get?" he said. "I'd rather sleep here, outside, than in a shelter. It's cleaner."
But troops turned back a mile-long line of taxis, vans and buses before they could reach the badly damaged airport.
Only later did Mexico's Tourism Department circulate a bulletin saying the first flights were reserved for organized tour groups — forcing individuals to wait even longer.
"Because this is a process of evacuation of tourists, there are no ticket sales," it said.
The terminal was damaged, so buses carried people directly to planes on the tarmac.
The system confused and frustrated many.
"There's no information. Nobody knows anything. And what they know changes every minute," said Steve Toth, 41, of Crown Point, Ind., who was stranded along the highway to the airport with his wife and 2-year-old daughter.
"Where are we going to go from here? This is crazy."
Some tourists gave up on leaving through Cancun (search) and found rides on seven- to 14-hour bus trips to Merida, 170 miles to the west. Frontier Airlines said it had sent a plane Tuesday to Merida to try to help some of its 1,200 stranded passengers.
About 1,000 found refuge at the Royal Islander on the hotel strip. It had no power or water, but the hotel managed to provide food twice a day, cooked on gas stoves on what was left of the beach.
"It's better than that shelter," said oil company analyst John Singer, 37, of Fairfax, Va.
Ferries were carrying people between the mainland and the hurricane-raked resort islands of Cozumel (search) and Isla Mujeres (search), Fox's office said. The U.S. Embassy said 900 Americans were believed to be on Cozumel.
While desperation was common across Cancun, where widespread looting followed the hurricane's flooding, there were signs of recovery with the reopening of a few restaurants, supermarkets and souvenir stands.
Officials sounded confused at times. Fox said on Monday that six people had died. His spokesman, Ruben Aguilar, said Tuesday the death toll was four. Some state officials earlier suggested a toll of seven.
The storm also killed at least five in Florida, 12 in Haiti and one in Jamaica.
Fox said Monday that 80 percent of the region's hotels should be running within two months. Full recovery could take until Easter, said Ana Patricia Morales, vice president of the Cancun Hotels Association.
Of 70,000 hotel rooms in Cancun, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel and other resorts along the Yucatan's eastern coast, 60,000 were rendered useless from hurricane damage, according to Jesus Nader, president of the Mexican Association of Hotels and Motels.
Marriott International Inc. said two Marriott hotels and one Ritz-Carlton hotel in Cancun will remain closed through Dec. 31, based an early damage assessment.
With some U.S. tourists complaining about their own government's response, the State Department issued a statement outlining its efforts to help. It said it had urged Americans to leave Oct. 20, adding that by Tuesday, it had 23 officials in Cancun and one in Cozumel.
It said that about 3,200 Americans had already been bused from Cancun to Merida, where they were being flown to the United States.
Even so, pizzeria owner Bob Gleason of Napa, Calif., wasn't satisfied. He suggested government-organized cruise ships.
"They could put us all on board and get us out of Mexican territory," he said. "We need some way to get out of here."