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.
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
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.
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.
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