Aca­pulco still sparkles

Mex­ico’s orig­i­nal beach­front vacation re­sort lo­cale out to put strug­gles be­hind

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - LIFE & TRAVEL - Text and photos by Alan Solomon

ACA­PULCO, Mex­ico — Sorry, but for this story we’ll skip the stan­dard ref­er­ences to El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor’s third wed­ding, JFK’s hon­ey­moon and cliff divers.

Aca­pulco. Gor­geous still, at least much of it. But it has prob­lems.

First, the news: Grupo Aut­ofin, a strong tourism in­dus­try pres­ence here, an­nounced plans this sum­mer to in­vest $1 bil­lion in new con­struc­tion and up­grades along the Pa­cific coast­line well south of the heart of the city and its fa­mous bay. In­cluded are high-end ho­tels, ren­o­va­tion of its 6,000-room Princess Ho­tel, a golf course, ecopark and other stuff.

For years, de­vel­op­ment had drifted south­ward to­ward and past the air­port (also get­ting a ma­jor redo), and now this. In the new Aca­pulco, condo tow­ers abound, all guarded. The mar­velous Banyan Tree Cabo Mar­ques (opened in 2010) is here, too, on cliffs above Puerto Mar­ques and be­hind se­cu­rity that ri­vals Camp David’s.

What im­pact that bil­lion will have on the mag­i­cal Aca­pulco, the one with the mag­nif­i­cent bay whose hills have sparkled so ro­man­ti­cally at night since the Eisen­hower ad­min­is­tra­tion, we prob­a­bly won’t know un­til 2022, Groupo Aut­ofin’s tar­get date for com­ple­tion.

What we know now: Aca­pulco is strug­gling.

“Aca­pulco,” said Manuel Barrera, a life­long na­tive who gives tours when he isn’t shoot­ing wed­ding photos, “was the first and only (beach) des­ti­na­tion in Mex­ico, and it was like this for a long time. Then came Puerto Val­larta, Ix­tapa, Can­cun, Hu­at­ulco — many, many places.

“And, un­for­tu­nately, the mod­ern­iza­tion of Aca­pulco never came.”

That’s part of the rea­son non-Mex­i­can tourists don’t come here much any­more.

The numbers are as­ton­ish­ing. Of the 8 mil­lion tourists who came to Aca­pulco in 2005, 340,000 were in­ter­na­tional, pri­mar­ily from the United States, a se­ri­ous drop from ear­lier decades but only a hint of what was to come. In 2014, nearly 9 mil­lion vis­i­tors came here; of those, the num­ber of in­ter­na­tional tourists was 50,848. The rest were well-off Mex­i­can na­tion­als, largely from Mex­ico City.

There’s more: As re­cently as 2010, 138 cruise ships sailed pas­sen­gers into Aca­pulco’s port. In 2014, the num­ber of ship ar­rivals was eight.

Numbers were up slightly in 2015 and again early this year, but those ships were headed for the Panama Canal and on other ex­tended itinerarie­s.

What hap­pened to Aca­pulco?

“The first des­ti­na­tion that ap­peared af­ter the first glory years of Aca­pulco (the 1950s and ’60s) was Can­cun,” said Piquis Rochin, in­ter­na­tional pro­mo­tion di­rec­tor for the city’s mar­ket­ing of­fice. “And we un­der­es­ti­mated the fast growth of Can­cun.”

The Mex­i­can govern­ment helped de­velop Can­cun, start­ing in 1970, from es­sen­tially a fish­ing vil­lage into a tourism mon­ster. Soon af­ter, it did the same (with more mod­est re­sults) in Ix­tapa. Later, Hu­at­ulco.

All were planned de­vel­op­ments. But Aca­pulco’s awak­en­ing and growth as a vacation des­ti­na­tion just sort of hap­pened.

“Can­cun,” said Geral­d­ina Tor­re­blanca, man­ager of the ren­o­vated Boca Chica Ho­tel on Caletilla Beach in the city’s orig­i­nal ho­tel core, “has the res­i­den­tial area and has a touris­tic area. You don’t have to mix them. Here, it got mixed, be­cause we started grow­ing, like, out of con­trol.”

It was sprawl and un­man­age­able en­tre­pre­neur­ial chaos. The only re­lief was the beau­ti­ful Aca­pulco Bay, which, be­cause no one planned on the city grow­ing from 49,000 in 1960 to 800,000 a few decades later, be­came pol­luted, pri­mar­ily from hu­man waste­water.

So for Amer­i­cans and Cana­di­ans and Euro­peans, with new, at­trac­tive op­tions, Aca­pulco be­came very op­tional.

Fi­nally and em­phat­i­cally, drug-re­lated vi­o­lence that be­gan in 2011, and from time to time makes head­lines now, chased away busi­ness. Not fair, say lo­cals.

“The prob­lems,” said Mel­chor Gon­za­lez, man­ager of the re­fur­bished Mirador Ho­tel, “are for the peo­ple in the car­tels, not for the tourists.”

“It doesn’t hap­pen to nor­mal peo­ple in Aca­pulco,” agreed Rochin, a diminu­tive, fiery woman who lives just steps from “The Costera,” the busy main drag named Avenida Costera Miguel Ale­man. “I come home very late al­most ev­ery night. I have never had any in­ci­dents.”

The me­dia, say peo­ple from ho­tel man­agers to bell­men to bar­tenders and wait­staff to shop­keep­ers, are to blame for mis­per­cep­tions.

“Aca­pulco is news,” said Tony Rul­lan, once a par­towner of Villa Vera, a leg­endary ho­tel and movie star hang­out, who to­day owns Tony’s Asian Bistro, a high­end restau­rant with a bay view, and two dis­cos. “If some­thing happens 200 kilo­me­ters from here, they say, ‘in Aca­pulco.’ ”

Yet, heav­ily armed sol­diers are a pres­ence through­out the tourist zones. Which sends a mixed mes­sage: If vi­o­lence to­ward tourists isn’t an is­sue, why the troops?

“I agree with you,” Rul­lan said. “It’s a dou­ble-edged sword.”

There’s more. The U.S. State De­part­ment is­sued an ad­vi­sory, up­dated in April and still (as of this writ­ing) in force, that bars govern­ment per­son­nel from the city. Not re­as­sur­ing. Plus in­con­ve­nience: To­day, the only non­stop flights from North Amer­ica start in Hous­ton, making get­ting here a time-con­sum­ing has­sle for most peo­ple.

Mean­while, ef­forts to di­vert and treat waste­water have re­stored safe swim­ming to Aca­pulco Bay. The beaches are busy again and look and smell just fine. Ship ar­rivals are in­creas­ing, al­beit slowly. Talks are on­go­ing that could re­store more non­stop flights from North Amer­ica next year.

Tourism in­ter­ests are pro­mot­ing at­trac­tions be­yond beaches and nightlife, in­clud­ing eco­tourism; Tres Pa­los and Coyuca la­goons, both rich in bird life, are get­ting more play.

In­creas­ingly, some es­tab­lished ho­tels, and not just the Princess, are pour­ing money into up­grades, in­clud­ing iconic Las Brisas, with its fa­mil­iar pink jeeps and dis­creet, pri­vate pools.

At night, the hills sur­round­ing Aca­pulco Bay still sparkle like the stars, just the way you re­mem­ber it.

Might be worth a re­visit. Alan Solomon is a free­lancer.

Bathers en­joy the calm­ing wa­ters of Aca­pulco Bay off Playa Con­desa in the heart of the city’s tourist zone. Most vis­i­tors are from Mex­ico.

Beach ven­dors of­fer­ing hats, carv­ings, bal­loons, jew­elry, juices and snacks re­main part of the Aca­pulco ex­pe­ri­ence.

A sol­dier keeps watch along Avenida Costera Miguel Ale­man. There is a mil­i­tary pres­ence at many ho­tels and the beaches.

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