By Isela Serrano and Patrick Rucker
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 flights delays.
Rina was downgraded to a tropical storm on Thursday. It sent vacationers packing from the Yucatan peninsula on Wednesday, causing villages to be evacuated and a scramble by tourists to board available flights.
Some 68 flights to and 70 out of Cancun were canceled on Thursday, although the airport remained open. Three others were canceled on Wednesday, when hundreds of passengers had flocked to the airport trying to get out before Rina hit.
Airlines canceled around 90 percent of the flights scheduled to and from the resort for Thursday.
Rina, still churning winds of up to 60 miles per hour is expected to continue to weaken as it rakes the strip of resorts on the Yucatan known as the Riviera Maya by evening, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.
"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.
South of Cancun in Playa del Carmen, strong rain had eased by the morning although the sea was 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 beach-front 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."
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, were devastated in 2005 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.
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 Holbox, which is low-lying and prone to flooding.
The sixth hurricane in the 2011 Atlantic season, Rina was located about 50 miles south of Cozumel Island, famous for its diving and coral reefs, at 4 p.m. CDT/2100 GMT on Thursday, and was moving north at 7 mph.
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 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.
(Additional reporting by Anahi Rama; writing by Dave Graham and Mica Rosenberg; editing by Mohammad Zargham and Eric Beech)