by Michael Shapiro | September 01, 2007

Hurricane Dean swept across southeastern Mexico in late August, descending on the Yucatan Peninsula as a Category 5 storm -- the strongest hurricane to hit land in the Atlantic region in nearly 20 years.

Dean made landfall near the town of Majahual -- more than 200 miles south of Cancun -- and caused heavy damage to Costa Maya, a small resort area and port for cruise ships. But the more densely populated tourism centers of Cancun, the Riviera Maya and the island of Cozumel were spared the hurricane’s destruction. In 2005, hurricanes Emily and Wilma hit those areas hard, and many hotels and resorts had only recently reopened for business when Dean arrived.

But the destruction of 2005 also was an opportunity to rebuild, according to Arturo Escaip, director of the Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau, resulting in “stronger structures, built to withstand storms of greater intensity.” The Presidente InterContinental, for example, invested US$33 million in its properties in Cancun and Cozumel, both of which suffered significant damage from Wilma. Improvements include reinforced windows and walls and revamped evacuation plans.

Dean provided sufficient warning for hotels and local government to activate contingency plans. “Cozumel was well prepared,” said Raul Marrufo, director of the Cozumel Tourism Promotion board, who said that, in large part, hurricane preparedness is ingrained in the culture. “For two centuries, the people of Cozumel have been living with hurricanes,” he explained. “Six months out of the year, we are dealing with something hurricane-related.”

In the days leading up to Dean, Cozumel’s Hurricane Preparedness Committee worked closely with airlines and tour companies to evacuate about 90 percent of the more than 5,000 tourists who were on the island. Three of Cozumel’s hotels, having recently been officially certified as hurricane shelters, were able to keep guests and offer temporary lodging to others.

The Hilton Cancun Golf & Spa Resort, which suffered no structural damage from Dean, took no chances, evacuating guests beginning a few days before the storm hit. Many guests were bused to the Hilton Villahermosa, 10 hours away, in part to avoid the congestion of Cancun International Airport.

“With Wilma,” noted a Hilton spokesperson, “guests were evacuated to a shelter, and then bused to Villahermosa. We learned to do this ahead of time. We would rather be safe than sorry.”