Acapulco still sparkles
Mexico’s original beachfront vacation resort locale out to put struggles behind
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.