Report From Cancun

On site for the official opening of two Mariott properties, Travel Agent found Cancun almost back to its old self. The hotels are, for the most part, operational, although only 63 of the total 86 total hospitality properties have yet opened their doors.  Cancun's beaches are back

Thanks to a $22 million government beach replenishment project, the beaches look wonderful and have retained their familiar white, powdery feel. Officials report that they are even larger, at 125 feet, than prior to Wilma's landfall on October 15, 2005. Almost all of the restaurants and nightlcubs are once again open for business and, indeed, we found the downtown area to be its same, familiar vibrant self one night the other week.

On September 22, two of the resort's flagship properties, the J.W. Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa and CasaMagna Marriott Cancun Resort, both owned by Mexican businessman Isaac Saban, formally celebrated their reopenings with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Check out this video on the Casa Magna resort:

The Ritz-Carlton and another Marriott property located three doors down but with a different owner, later followed with their own formal openings.

"We're back now. We're back new and stronger than ever, says Christopher Calabrese, general manager for both Casa Magna and the J.W. Marriott. "The destination really looks good. Everything is brand new...demand is strong. Customers want to come to Cancun."

In a way, both the J.W. Marriott and CasaMagna serve as a metaphorical proxy for the whole strip. They suffered incredible damage during the storm, with 185-mile-per-hour winds destroying windows and allowing seawater to flood most areas. But both apparently have made a remarkable comeback. At a total cost of $100 million, the hotels look and feel like new. There are now flat-screen TVs in every room, and throughout both properties, hurricane-proof windows capable of withstanding a Category 5 storm have been installed. Officials also made a host of smaller, less consequential changes. The J.W. Marriott has hired a new spa director, who has infused both the spa's decor and menu with a distinctly Mayan feel.

But agents should know that the destination is not completely up to its pre-storm par. Many hotels are still undergoing reconstruction.

The hotel adjacent to the J.W. Mariott, for instance, CancunPalace, is a concrete skeleton upon which laborers work during the entire day. Overflowing Dumpsters filled with construction refuse front many of the hotels alongside newly planted vegetation (even the ones that are formally or informally open). And while CasaMagna celebrated its official reopening, work continues in earnest on the property. (Officials are hoping everything will have been wrapped up by the time you read this.)

Marriott officials report that demand for the destination is strong, although they would not divulge numbers. J.W. Marriott, according to one hotel official, was running at about 60 percent occupancy at the time of our visit, although the grounds seemed sparsely populated.

Hotels Revamp With Added Luxury

There is a noteworthy trend afoot in Cancun, a striking departure from the prior course of events, and it is perhaps best evidenced by the trajectory of the Cancun Palace Hotel.

Like many hotels and resorts in Cancun, the hotel gained a reputation for catering to the all-inclusive spring-break crowd. It was, to put it one way, perceived as catering to a low-end clientele. So when Hurricane Wilma ravaged the CancunPalace, the owners chose to start completely anew.

A source with the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau told Travel Agent that Cancun Palace is seeking to remake itself in the image of its high-end, luxury sister property, Le Blanc, also located in Cancun.

"Everyone is making improvement, but not as much as [CancunPalace]," says Israel Urbina Acuna of the Convention and Visitors' Bureau.

"Almost all the hotels are changing to luxury here. We are trying to make Cancun be seen as a luxury destination. It's all geared that way."

Indeed, Acuna tells Travel Agent that the Convention and Visitors Bureau has enlisted U.S. public relations firm YPB&R to help with a campaign aimed to change the image of Cancun among both U.S. and international visitors.

Cancun officials inked a similar deal with Mexico City P.R. firm Planeco.

"We don't want (the spring break) image for Cancun," says Acuna. "We'll receive that business. We're not telling anyone we don't want it, but it's only there three weeks out of the year."