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México is the most populous Spanish-
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Carnaval in Mazatlan

Visitors and locals scream, sing, shout and dance amid confetti and ribbons. Bands of all kinds play the infectious rhythms of the State of Sinaloa. And the food–oh, the food–camarones (shrimp) prepared in every way possible, washed down with ice cold Pacifico beer, for it’s Carnaval Time, Mazatlán’s biggest pachanga (fiesta). 
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Updated
February 2, 2005

 
FONATUR
The Force Behind Mexican Tourism
by Bob Brooke


Fonatur, Mexico’s national trust for the promotion of tourism, celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2004. In that short time, it has managed to mastermind the infrastructure behind modern tourism in Mexico by developing some prime coastal real estate and encouraging foreign investment in its projects.

During its history, Fonatur has developed five of Mexico’s top beach resort areas–Cancun, Ixtapa, Los Cabos, Loreto, and the Bays of Huatulco–ushering in a new era for Mexican tourism. While its critics say Fonatur has ruined the environments of these areas through overbuilding, it’s a fact all this development has upgraded the economy in them, creating hundreds of jobs for residents. Currently, these five destinations offer more than 245 hotels with 36,800 rooms. Fonatur’s resort destinations also bring in over half of the foreign tourist dollars to Mexico.

In order to coordinate tourism efforts in Mexico, the Mexican Congress passed a law on December 29, 1973 creating Fonatur and eliminating two existing trusts–INFRATUR (the Trust for the Promotion of Tourism Infrastructure), administered by Banco de Mexico, and FOGATUR (the Trust for the Guarantee and Promotion of Tourism), administered by Financero Nacional. Essentially, the new agency was to promote new development and raise the necessary capital for it through foreign and domestic investment.

Prior to Fonatur’s creation, development, scattered through various governmental agencies and tightly controlled, had been going on. Fonatur, through a vigorous campaign for foreign capital, helped to create the mega tourism industry that Mexico has come to depend on to bolster its economy. But several areas had already been earmarked for tourism even before Fonatur got its start.

In 1967, a group of businessmen entered data into a computer, which then selected three areas in Mexico for tourism development–Cancun, Ixtapa, Los Cabos. All had pristine beaches, fine coastlines, and the potential to attract beach-hungry American tourists.

Cancun
One of these areas was Cancun, a small, swampy finger of land in an isolated part of the Mexican Caribbean, which was to become Mexico’s most promising beach resort.

Designing Cancun, an island shaped like the number seven with bridges at both ends connecting it to the mainland, began from the ground up in 1968. New infrastructure, modern electrical plants, purified tap water, paved, tree-lined avenues, and buildings that fit into the landscape–hotels that looked like Maya temples. When the Mexican Government discovered the potential of Cancun as the first four hotels opened in 1972, it realized that it had to create a new agency to coordinate tourism development.

From the outset, Fonatur had a three-phase master plan. Phase I, which ended in 1985, concentrated development in town and out on the strip of beach up to the Sheraton Cancun. Phase II, completed in 1990, concentrated on the area from the Sheraton to Club Med at Punta Nizuc. Phase III focused on residential areas built according to demand. Under the master plan, Cancun was supposed to have over 20,000 rooms by 1990. Fonatur achieved that and more.

Once only a handful of fishermen lived on a sandy peninsula isolated from the rest of the world. Today, Cancun sports 144 hotels with 26, 550 rooms. Its airport, now becoming a major hub in the region, rises like a mighty Maya temple of grey concrete and girders, fringed by colorful tropical blossoms. And thanks to Fonatur, over 400,000 people live and work in a modern city complete with the latest stores, including Ace Hardware and Wal-Mart.

Even though Cancun has weathered the devastation of hurricanes and the annual onslaught of American college kids on Spring Break, the resort continues to grow. Most of the new hotel growth, designed to make Cancun an upscale resort, has been in the Gran Turismo and 5-star categories. These new properties are not only larger and more spectacular, but each is designed in a contemporary style, with soaring atriums and lavish swimming pools and cabana facilities. Some are terraced down to the sea like the gardens of Babylon, while others are half-hidden under thatched palapas.

But middle class mass tourism seems to have taken over the original part of Cancun, driving upscale travelers to seek newer, more luxurious accommodations south of it towards Tulum and Playa del Carmen and beyond, along what’s called The Rivera Maya.

"Cancun is a symbol of success," said John McCarthy, Fonatur’s director. "To date, the government's large-scale ventures into resort building have transformed whole swaths of Mexico's coasts." Environmentalists, however, often cite the miles-long stretch of high-rise hotels in Cancun as an example of overbuilding.

Ixtapa
As Cancun began to flourish, Fonatur concentrated on developing it’s second destination–Ixtapa. This modern development of a dozen highrise hotels looms over Playa del Palmar, a two-and-a-half-mile long arc of fine sand that curves like a smile around Palmar Bay. A landscaped boulevard, with speed bumps every few feet to ease visitors into the pace of paradise, runs between them and an 18-hole Robert Trent Jones golf course, complete with exotic birds and two alligators that live on the fifth hole.

Except for some villas and another hotel or two, the only other development in Ixtapa has been the Ixtapa Marina, surrounded by luxury condominiums. This 430-acre development, transformed from a great mangrove lagoon, offers a marina with slips for up to 620 boats. A 100-foot-high lighthouse, El Faro, topped by a revolving bar towers above the entrance gate. A unique 72-par 18-hole links golf course designed by Texan John Von Hagge lies across the road. The Casa Club, a combination yacht and golf clubhouse, boasts a swimming pool,, spa, fitness club, and restaurant. Also, a luxurious beachclub, featuring an indoor-outdoor restaurant and bar, is available for residents. Luxury condominiums and private villas, decorated in Mexican-Mediterranean style and multi-pastel colors, surround the marina and golf course.

In 1975, Ixtapa had 11 hotels with 491 rooms. Now it has only 13 hotels with 3,652 rooms. This slower growth has helped to keep Ixtapa attractive and less crowded than its sister resort on the Caribbean.

Los Cabos
Ever since its development into a modern beach resort, Los Cabos has stood for luxury with a definite California beat. Originally the haunt of beer-guzzling sport fishermen, today's Los Cabos vacationer is well-heeled, well-traveled, and sophisticated, and the prices throughout the resort reflect it.

Los Cabos, the name given to the tip of the Baja California peninsula between colonial San Jose del Cabo and its newer and more commercialized sister Cabo San Lucas, has changed a lot since Fonatur began development here in 1976. It paved dusty streets and turned desert dunes into green fairways for some of the most challenging and expensive golf courses in Mexico.

As Fonatur’s third destination to be developed, Los Cabos began with 10 hotels offering 544 rooms. Today, it has 54 hotels–five times as many– with 5,722 rooms. Many of these properties fall into the super luxury category with rooms going for upwards of $800 per night. And greens fees of more than $125 are the highest in the country.

Bays of Huatulco
For the next 10 years, Fonatur focused on its original three destinations. But then it turned it’s attention to Huatulco, a string of magnificent bays and beaches south of Puerto Escondido, which it dubbed the "tourism wonder of tomorrow."

When Fonatur built it’s sprawling villa to show off Huatulco to investors, the number of people making a living there was about 1000. Life was simple and fishing provided a humble living for the people who lived in dirt-floored palapa houses. They farmed small cornfields and spend much of their day paddling in and out of the beautiful bays catching fish. With few worldly possessions, they jumped at the chance for hard cash when Fonatur arrived and offered them cash for their waterfront lots and to relocate them inland.

Unfortunately, tomorrow has yet arrived. Originally designed to spread out over nine pristine bays, only the area around two of them has been developed. But, unlike Fonatur’s other resorts, visitors can actually lay in a hammock and watch the sunset in a dramatic setting a world away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Crashing waves and sea breezes, keep the area pleasant. Phase I in 1988 called for the development of the bays of Santa Cruz, Tangolunda and Chahue. Only the first two have been developed with a marina in Santa Cruz, as well as a park and villas. The resort’s golf course flows down to the shores of Tangolunda, which also has several hotels.

Originally expected to be completed by 2018, with 30,000 hotel rooms, the less than 50 percent occupancy rate at Huatulco’s current hotels forced the project to slow way down. To save face, Fonatur decided to keep more of the land as a natural reserve–only one bay is part of the plan.

Today, 17 hotels with 1,800 rooms are operational. Even the former Club Med closed up shop and has now been sold to another hotel chain. But with little promotion, Huatulco remains an isolated paradise on the Pacific.

Current Projects
Over the years, Fonatur has had to reinvent itself. McCarthy said that he plans for the agency to move forward using its successful golf and marina formula for development at several locations in and around Cancun, along the Mayan Coast south of the resort, on the island of Cozumel, as well as in Los Cabos and along the coast of Nayarit. Each marina, with slips for 150-600 boats, will be complemented by an 18-hole golf course and residential villas and perhaps a hotel or two. McCarthy emphasized that all buildings will be low-rise, compared to the high rises of Cancun and Ixtapa, with much less environmental impact.

"Tourists want to co-exist with the natives," said McCarthy. "Today, they want to experience a destination." With that in mind, Fonatur plans to build a museum and themepark by the marina at Puerto Los Cabos. In Cancun, it’s finally going ahead with Malecon Cancun, a boardwalk promenade project that had been in litigation for years, as well as Herradura Cancun, a project that will create a new public beach.

But Fonatur’s two biggest projects include the development of Loreto Bay and the Escalera Nautica, a string of 22 marinas, strategically placed along the shores of the Sea of Cortes, between Baja California and the State of Sonora.

Loreto Bay, to be developed in nine stages and targeted to U.S. and Canadian tourists, will have 5,000 villas, 980 condominiums, 6 boutique hotels with 1,500 rooms, a golf course, a shopping center, spa and a medical clinic. Loreto was originally chosen by Fonatur when they developed their first three destinations, but after building five small hotels with 138 rooms and a golf course, the project virtually sat idle until recently.

The Escalera Nautica, or nautical route, is very much like the former mission route established by Spanish missionaries in the 16th Century. Instead of inland religious missions, the route will consist of marinas along the Pacific and Sea of Cortes coasts, followed by the same along the Sea of Cortes coasts of the States of Sonora and Sinaloa. While missionaries built the original missions one day’s travel by horse or cart from each other, the Escalera’s marinas will be at one day’s travel by boat, or about 120 nautical miles apart.

The plan calls for 22 full-service marinas, 10 of them new. Of the 12 existing, seven will be improved and five have been judged adequate. The 10 new marinas will be located on sites with natural shelter, or bays, a feature the peninsula has in abundance. Five of these are to be in Baja California, three in Baja California Sur, and one each in Sonora and Sinaloa.

Additionally, the plan calls for an 84-mile highway route for towing boats from one side of the peninsula to the other, which will allow boat travelers quick access to either body of water for those without time or interest in sailing around the tip of the peninsula. Further, the plan calls for improving the road between Mexicali and San Felipe to allow bigger-boat towing rigs from the U.S. crossborder access to the Sea of Cortes.

McCarthy believes that once completed, no less than 52,000 American boat owners will set sail to those destinations and a good number will permanently moor in the various marinas. Moreover he estimates that 76,400 boats will be cruising Baja coastlines by 2010 and that by 2014 there will be 5.4 million nautical tourists.

Fonatur envisioned this project in the early 1970s, undertaking studies and mapping the peninsula. If a consortium of multinational U.S. companies help Fonatur develop the project, it will transform the Baja California into one huge tourist destination. Such a project will also include hotels and golf courses along with every conceivable tourist-related amenity imaginable.

The key for President Fox's government is to make money from tourism. During the last three years, Fonatur has fortified programs and started up new ones. With the encouragement of President Fox and a $6 billion budget, it can once again be the great promoter of tourism investment and the adviser on national tourism development.

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