CANCUN, Mexico – Mexico's spring break king — Cancun — is rebounding quickly from last year's triple blow to its tourism industry caused by the country's swine flu epidemic, drug violence and a global economic crisis.
Those worries couldn't compete this year against Mexico's cheap airfare from the United States and phenomenal package deals that include the popular all-you-can-drink enticements.
February saw 85 percent of its 28,000 rooms filled, a sign of Cancun's speedy recovery from 2009, when 1 million fewer visitors came than in a typical year. The relatively high occupancy seen in February is expected to go even higher in March when more universities are on spring break.
"We're back to normal levels after having seen tourism practically paralyzed last year," said Quintana Roo state assistant tourism secretary Dario Flota.
At the sprawling, palm-tree packed Oasis Hotel, a popular spot with spring breakers, visitors from the U.S. Midwest and Canada looking to shake the chill from a usually brutal winter dotted the beach where some took photos with monkeys while others danced to music pumped out from gigantic speakers.
Emma Duranti, a 20-year-old science major at Queens University in Kingston, Canada, decided to come to Cancun after comparing it to Jamaica and finding a better deal. Duranti said she paid $1,040 for a seven-day, all-inclusive trip.
"I was expecting a good party but it went above and beyond," said Duranti while sunbathing with two other friends on the beach of the Oasis Hotel. "There is always a party on the beach and you can party all day and party all night!"
Tourism officials say they expect about 25,000 spring breakers to descend this season on Cancun's newly rebuilt beaches and turquoise blue ocean, compared to the 20,000 spring breakers who visited last year. That's in addition to tourists of all ages who visit throughout the year. And not only is Cancun drawing them back. Destinations across the country are seeing tourists return, despite a U.S. travel alert warning Americans to stay away from some parts, mostly in the northern border states, because of drug violence.
Lonely Planet's U.S. staff's top-10 list for 2010 put Mexico as the No. 4 destination for the new year, declaring that "H1N1 is so 2009" and that Mexico is "still a good bargain, easy to get to for most Americans" — giving a much-needed endorsement for Mexico's third largest source of foreign income.
Tourism all but came to a halt in April 2009 when fear over the swine flu epidemic virtually paralyzed Mexico, forcing the closure of schools, restaurants and archaeological sites and restricted air travel to Mexico from some countries. Mexico's revenue from foreign tourism dropped 15 percent to $11.3 billion from $13.3 billion in 2008, according to the Tourism Department.
The world has since learned that swine flu is treatable if detected in time, vaccines are available, and death rates have dropped in Mexico and elsewhere.
Mexico has had a tougher time fighting off its bad image from drug violence, which has left more than 15,000 people dead since President Felipe Calderon declared his war on cartels in 2006.
To counter the bad news, the Pacific coast resort of Acapulco in drug-plagued Guerrero state paid MTV $200,000 for the network to host its spring party there this year. The city expects to draw between 7,000 to 10,000 spring breakers despite the resort's sporadic drug killings and gun battles, one of which took place near an historic tourist hotel last year.
Some U.S. universities last year warned students headed for Mexico of a surge in drug-related violence south of the border prompting some to cancel already paid for spring break trips.
Mexican government officials have gone on the offensive and made clear every chance they get that the violence is concentrated in a handful of states, most along the Mexico-U.S. border, like Durango, Coahuila and Chihuahua, and in the Pacific coast state of Michoacan — all far from the country's popular beach resorts.
That message appears to be working: Travelocity's senior editor Genevieve Shaw Brown said bookings on Travelocity.com for spring travel to Mexico have shot up 25 percent compared to last year. Cancun is No. 5 on Travelocity's top 10 spring break bookings list for this year, up from the No. 10 spot last year.
She said the swine flu epidemic, violence and an unhealthy economy forced Mexico to lower its prices.
"Now Mexico is reaping the benefits of cheap travel costs with the return of spring breakers who are looking for deals," Shaw Brown said. "It's been communicated very well that Mexico is an outstanding value."
Those who risk it are also reaping the benefits for doing so: The federal, state and local governments have invested $80 million to rebuild Cancun's world-renowned powdery white beaches that have been suffering from erosion.
Calderon on Tuesday was scheduled to inaugurate the recently completed project along Cancun's 8-mile (13-kilometer) long strip that extends the beach to 85 meters (280 feet) wide. The rebuilding, which took a year to complete, is the second attempt to rebuild the sandy playground since Hurricane Wilma devastated the area in 2005. An artificial reef off was also built off the coast to help contain the sand.
Elysee Burgess, a 21-year-old nursing major from Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., had only one complaint: She has to get up from the beach every time she wants to get another drink from her hotel bar.
"The beach is great, there are some awesome parties," Burgess said, while her friend Kristen Fleming took a picture with a monkey. "The only thing that sucks is that you can only get one drink at a time."