September 5, 2008

“Acapulco-ization”: The Final Stage of Tourism?

Kent Paterson

Acapulco’s old Costera tourist drag projects a surprising new vibrancy. Glitzy bars and restaurants, gaming establishments, and retail outlets splash an upscale coating on an otherwise gritty resort that hovered on the abyss of oblivion not long ago.

But the slick veneer masks a deeper problem afflicting not only Acapulco but other Mexican tourist destinations: more people seeking fewer tourist dollars. Just ask Laura Caballero, a long-time Acapulco resident and small business advocate.

“We are practically in danger of extinction because our businesses do not manage to cover the expenses,” Caballero said. “When there is a season, there are no tourists. They don’t come to our businesses.”

Immersed in tourism since she was a teenager, Caballero grew up in an economy where small merchants, restaurateurs, travel agents, and others managed a decent living from the steady flow of foreign and national tourists. Nowadays, though, economic survival is an iffy proposition for the tourism sector’s middle class. Faced with spendthrift tourists, and with less of them from abroad, Caballero and other residents are being squeezed.

Selling jewelry from his street stand, Camero Gerardo Torres is one of numerous indigenous “semi-permanent” merchants some blame for unfair competition because the informal vendors do not pay taxes. A 47-year resident of Acapulco who speaks Nahuatl in addition to Spanish, Torres challenged contentions that indigenous street sellers were driving store owners out of business.

“There is a lot of business, a lot of merchants, and established vendors,” Torres mused. “I will tell you that we aren’t competition for the established merchants because they sell more expensive items.”

Still, Torres said it is not always easy to make a living these days.

Mexico’s New Tourism Model

Caballero and Torres are disparate actors in a real-life money drama unfolding in Acapulco. First emerging as a Mexican-oriented resort where locals ran boarding houses and offered up home-cooked food to hungry visitors, Acapulco later turned its sights to affluent foreigners from the United States and other nations in a successful bid for world fame that was greatly aided by the post-revolutionary decline of Cuba as a top vacation getaway. Sold as the Pacific Paradise, Acapulco set the standard for surf and sun vacation packages that whisked Margarita-sipping gringos for a week or two of sex and sin safely away from the inhibitions of the Puritanical North.

With all amenities included, this stage of tourism spawned the great hotel skyscrapers that rose over Acapulco Bay. Besides the new middle class, a working-class of hotel workers represented by unions affiliated with Mexico’s former PRI ruling party dominated the economic landscape. By the 1980s, however, the international stage of tourism began declining as obvious environmental contamination and competition from new resorts like Cancun knocked the wind out the City That Never Sleeps. As one former visitor put it, “I was in Acapulco about 20 years ago and would never return because the pollution and trash in the ocean were apparent even five miles out.”

Once packed almost year-round, Acapulco’s fortunes now rested on the long Mexican weekend holidays known as “puentes” and the traditional summer, Easter, and winter vacations. Slow vacation periods like the summer of 2008 season spell economic disaster for many people, especially in the run-up to the beginning of the low season locals call “Black September.”

A huge change has been the shift toward residential tourism. Drawn by the spell of the Bay of Santa Lucia, moneyed outsiders began purchasing time-shares and condos for their visits. Increasingly, hotels faced competition from “pirate” entrepreneurs who rented cheap rooms to cash-strapped visitors.

Changes in tourism also influenced the type of businesses operating in Acapulco. Enjoying their beach visit with a condominium kitchen, tourists could obtain their own meals at the new Wal-Mart or one of the large Mexican-owned big box stores rather than sampling the flavors of a local restaurant.

Even the old mom-and-pop corner store, or “changarro,” romanticized by former President Vicente Fox as the beacon of petty capitalist opportunity, is fast becoming an obsolete institution as U.S.-style convenience stores begin popping up two or three per block in some areas.

As the overall economy tightens, people continue moving into the city from the countryside, affordable housing and basic services are in short supply, garbage accumulates in public places, and traffic congestion fills the streets with daredevil drivers. Public safety has plummeted to such an extent that the U.S. State Department warns tourists that Acapulco is among the most dangerous places to visit in Mexico.

According to press accounts, a Finnish tourist was allegedly drugged and raped at the famed Palladium disco, while a U.S. travel writer was robbed on a popular beach this summer. Contributing to the bad publicity, numerous tourists drown in the waters off Acapulco and the coasts of Guerrero every year.

One, Two, Three Many Acapulcos

Although it is frequently derided as a has-been, Acapulco is actually once again in the vanguard of Mexican tourism and setting trends for the 21st century. To one degree or another, the economic and social forces shaping Acapulco influence all Mexico’s tourist resorts.

In Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, a growing number of critics call the process “Acapulco-ization.” A cursory look at the old fishing village quickly reveals why. On the shores of Banderas Bay and in the town center, growing lines of traffic crowd the streets, and condominium towers now kiss a skyline that is beginning to resemble Acapulco’s.

A young university graduate who helps her family run a popular restaurant, Tatiana Meneses returned from school to find five large shopping centers, two large movie theaters, and “skyscrapers” on the beach. Wal-Mart, Costco, and Starbucks all came to town.

In Puerto Vallarta, “The green of the dollar” means more than the “green of ecology,” Meneses asserted.

During the municipal administration of Gustavo Gonzalez Villaseñor (2003-2006), officials approved hundreds of suspect building permits. Two huge condo projects, Peninsula Towers and the Grand Venetian, built near an earthquake fault, symbolized Vallarta’s transformation. Booming with newcomers, Puerto Vallarta’s population approached 300,000 residents.

In the Gonzalez years, the city’s tree-shaded city parks were dug up and turned into privately-contracted parking lots and retail outlets. Some citizens resisted the demolition, squaring off against a police riot squad sent to quell the opposition.

“The loss of the traditional parks was not a singular event,” wrote Puerto Vallarta Ecology Group member R.C. Walker. “As it can now be seen, it was the beginning of the end for traditional Puerto Vallarta.”

Fed up with the direction of their town, Meneses and other like-minded residents formed a new organization this year: Vallarta Verde, or Green Vallarta. The group’s goal is to balance economic development with ecological protection, and to preserve the historic character of Old Town Vallarta.

Green Vallarta co-founder Greta Fuentes contended that Vallarta’s incorporation into an Acapulco-style economy robs locals of meaningful futures. In a condo-crammed city, many youths will only have opportunities to become maids, gardeners, or maintenance men, Fuentes observed.

The sale of Puerto Vallarta harkens the final conquest of coastal Mexico. From the Sea of Cortez in the North to the Caribbean in the South, virtually every nook and cranny that could be appropriated and turned into a profitable venture is up for grabs.

To keep an additional flow of foreigners coming, the Mexican government is promoting a massive expansion of the cruise ship industry in virtually all the country’s ports. In modern Mexico, seemingly nothing is sacred anymore. Several hotels were even illegally constructed in the Tulum National Park in the heart of the Mayas’ old mystic center, and a golf course and Venetian-style canals are envisioned as part of the “Downtown Tulum” development.

After meeting in 2004 and 2005, environmentalists and community activists from 10 Mexican Pacific states issued the little-noticed but significant San Blas Declaration. Charging irregular port, real estate, tourist, and other developments were responsible for environmental damages of all kinds, the activists blamed corruption and influence peddling for the “surrender of national sovereignty for the benefit of big private national and foreign corporations” under the guise of progress and development, according to La Jornada newspaper.

Alternatives to Tourist Development?

More than a half-century of tourist development in Acapulco and other communities has produced spurts of economic growth, outside appropriation of local Mexican lands, environmental degradation, and an increasingly segmented tourist economy geared toward visitors of different social strata. Inevitably, the legendary party hearty gringo tourism is becoming medical tourism; there is even talk of marketing “death tourism,” and constructing hospices as the baby boom generation ages and dies off.

Largely ignored is the question of whether Mexico’s tourist economy can even sustain the population that attempts to live off it. Like peak oil, tourism in Mexico may have already reached its zenith. Acapulco, Cancun, and now even Puerto Vallarta are all moderate-sized or big cities with hundreds of thousands of residents. Yet none of them really produce the products they consume, nor do they have any other economic activity to speak of besides tourism.

An attempt to install maquiladora plants in Acapulco in the late 1990s fell by the wayside, and governments of all political stripes in tourist communities continue hedging their bets on tourism. In fact, they are eyeing tourists from fast-developing Asia as the replacement for the fading gringos.

In the absence of a bold new economic vision seriously supported by the Mexican government, Acapulco and its offspring will continue on the same path toward an uncertain, unsustainable future. Some, like Laura Caballero, contend culture, atmosphere, and social relationships are all losing out. Perhaps with a dash of nostalgia, Caballero argued for rescuing the small merchant.

“The treatment you receive from a big chain is not the same while visiting one of our markets,” Caballero insisted. “Many times, one becomes friends with our visitors. This is what our small merchants offer in contrast to the big chains.”

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Latin America, and an analyst for the Americas Policy Program at www.americaspolicy.org.

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