CANCUN/PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico (Reuters) - The remnants of Hurricane Rina bore down on Cancun and other resorts on Mexico’s popular Caribbean coast on Thursday, chasing away tourists and causing massive flight delays.
Rina, which was downgraded to a tropical storm on Thursday, had already sent thousands of vacationers packing from the Yucatan peninsula, causing villages to be evacuated and a scramble by tourists to board available flights.
Sixty-eight flights to and 70 out of Cancun were canceled on Thursday, roughly 90 percent of the total number scheduled. But the city’s airport remained open.
“There haven’t been this many flights canceled from Cancun International airport since the H1N1 influenza in 2009,” said Dario Flota, director of the Riviera Maya’s tourist promotion trust, referring to the spring 2009 swine flu outbreak.
Rina, still churning winds of up to 60 miles per hour, was expected to keep weakening as it rakes the strip of resorts on the Yucatan known as the Riviera Maya, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.
Local businesses were left stranded by the storm.
“Sales are dead because of Rina. There’s no tourism, there’s no people,” said Elias Aguilar, a 31-year-old salesman in a Cancun handcraft market, who said business was even worse than when Hurricane Wilma devastated the area in 2005.
South of Cancun in Playa del Carmen, heavy rain was falling by evening, the seas were choppy and the dock for ships to the tourist island of Cozumel was closed.
Most souvenir and gift shops on the pedestrian boulevard 5th Avenue had steel shutters drawn, but only a few beachfront properties had their windows secured with wooden panels.
“Normally, this plaza is full of vendors,” said dock watchman Jose Antonio Palma. “They’ve all been gone since yesterday. They say the storm is weakening but we have to be prepared for anything. That’s what we learned from Wilma. Whatever can be blown around we’ve cleared out of here.”
The center of the storm passed some 20 miles west of Cozumel, famous for its diving and coral reefs, at 10 p.m. CDT (0300 GMT on Thursday), moving north at about 7 mph.
Rina is an unwelcome disruption to a tourism industry already struggling with a decline in foreign visitors spooked by Mexico’s violent war on drug cartels, which has claimed more than 44,000 lives in five years.
The Yucatan coast and Cancun, where heavy rain kept beaches empty on Thursday morning, was hit badly by Hurricane Wilma, the most intense storm ever recorded in the Atlantic, and local people still have keen memories of the damage.
Rina has lost much of its punch since Wednesday, when it was a Category 2 hurricane on a five-level scale. Rina should dissipate in about 48 hours, the center said.
Still, authorities in Cancun’s home state of Quintana Roo had advised people in vulnerable areas to take cover.
Rina is not expected to affect Mexico’s main oil installations in the Gulf of Mexico or coffee-growing areas in Central America that were battered by heavy rains this month.
Even with the downgrades, Rina is expected to cause downpours and potentially dangerous waves. Most schools in Quintana Roo closed as a safety precaution.
More than 4,000 residents and visitors were evacuated from the islands of Isla Mujeres and the flood-prone Holbox.
The sixth hurricane in the 2011 Atlantic season, Rina could dump 3 to 6 inches of rain over the eastern Yucatan. A storm surge is also possible, raising tide levels as much as 2 feet (0.6 meter) above normal.
The head of Mexico’s West Coast National Marine Park, Jaime Gonzalez, said the hurricane would likely erode Cancun’s famous white-sand beaches, which have been rebuilt twice since Wilma stripped away nearly 60 percent of the city’s sand.
For some visitors like Janet Calvert from Dallas, the storm at least offered some thrills.
Moved out of her hotel in Playa del Carmen as a safety measure against Rina’s advance, she said she and her husband had even been “a bit excited” when they heard about the storm.
“We’re just going to stay and experience it. ... I love storms,” she said. “We can’t cut this trip short because I‘m not going to swim back to Dallas.”
Additional reporting by Anahi Rama; Writing by Dave Graham and Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Eric Beech and Peter Cooney