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BIG DREAMS FOR BAJA Escalera Nautica Update

Spanish Version

Plans for Mexico's Baja
Face a Rough Landscape

Plans for Peninsula Include Hotels, Marinas; One Problem: Getting There by Land or Sea
By JOEL MILLMAN and JIM CARLTON Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

SANTA ROSALILLITA, Mexico -- A new billboard, erected by Mexico's state tourism agency here, touts the millions of pesos on their way to this spot on the Baja Peninsula 400 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border. The money will promote resort development as part of a project, the government promises, that will have "over 100,000 beneficiaries."

A single spray-painted word asks, "Quien?"

That cheeky graffito -- "Who?" in English -- poses a $100 million question that could nag planners of Mexico's Escalera Nautica for years to come. The "Nautical Route" -- a chain of 22 government-franchised ports and marinas to be built or expanded along 2,500 miles of shoreline in northwestern Mexico -- represents the country's most ambitious new tourism development since the spectacular success, more than a generation ago, of Cancun.

Now ranking among the Caribbean's busiest destinations, Cancun would be hard to duplicate anywhere, much less along the craggy, desolate Baja coast. Nonetheless, Mexican officials say the Escalera Nautica will be successful as well as ecologically safe. Best of all, they say, the estimated $1.9 billion cost to build it around the Sea of Cortez can be financed largely by private developers.

But can it? Luring the vacation dollars of millions of rich gringos from the U.S. Southwest has been the dream of Mexican tourism officials for years, since the 1973 completion of a two-lane highway running the length of Baja's rugged spine. First by car, then by recreational vehicle, now by yacht, tourism projects here have always been launched under the same mantra: "Build It, and They Will Come."

Boaters enjoying solitude in Mexico's Sea of Cortez.

Yet for 30 years -- starting with a chain of government-owned motels, then a chain of recreational-vehicle courts -- those schemes have failed as developers have been unable to overcome Baja's biggest obstacle of relative inaccessibility. Now, a new report from a respected US research firm throws some cold water on the planning behind this latest Baja venture.

According to the study by San Francisco-based EDAW Inc., which was commissioned by the philanthropic David and Lucile Packard Foundation on behalf of some environmental and business groups in the region, demand for the kind of nautical tourism envisioned in Escalera Nautica is overblown by as much as 600%.

For example, Mexican officials say the project will attract more than 60,000 big boats annually from the US by 2014 -- although only around 3,000 such vessels travel there today; the EDAW report concludes demand will support only about 10,000 annual boat visits in the Baja area over that time. The reason: Boating in the US Southwest has largely stagnated. With so many aging baby boomers already having taken up the pastime, EDAW researchers foresee little reason for greater numbers to attempt sailing to Baja -- a voyage that entails rough seas and treacherous currents and can last for weeks.

Mexican officials defend their projections, saying they take into account other variables such as overflow from California's filled-to-capacity marinas. "Anyway, the weather is better here: Maybe you could have your boats six months in Mexico, six months in the US," says Alejandro Rodriguez Mirelles, an official of the agency Fonatur supervising the Escalera Nautica project.

Given that Baja's main attractions are its unspoiled and unpopulated deserts and beaches, environmentalists hope they can talk the government into pursuing a radically scaled-down version of the project that would take advantage of those assets -- without undermining them. They worry that construction of marinas and other infrastructure would despoil a largely pristine landscape and threaten rare creatures like sea turtles.

"We support development in this region, but if we build infrastructure that is not needed, the damage will have been done," says Lorenzo Rosenzweig, chief executive officer of the Mexican Nature Conservation Fund, which has scheduled a Jan. 22 meeting in Mexico City to review findings of the EDAW report with government officials.

Santa Rosalillita was chosen for the first step in Mexico's ambitious plan. A windswept village midway down the peninsula, its first streetlights came just this past year -- four solar-operated lamps erected between a public basketball court and a row of outhouses.

Yet the spot was selected as the western terminus of one of Escalera Nautica's most dubious presumptions, a so-called Asphalt Canal that would allow US boat owners to save a week's sailing time around the tip of Baja by trucking their vessels overland to the other coast.

A marina under construction in the Baja village of Santa Rosalillita

. The problem: Although Santa Rosalillita lies at Baja's thinnest point, it has neither a hospitable harbor, nor adequate road access linking it to the Cortez shore. The EDAW report concluded that the "canal" makes little economic sense, given that most boats would likely press on to Cabo San Lucas, at most three days south.

"This project is a great PowerPoint presentation, but to build a marina here makes no sense either environmentally or economically," says Serge Dedina of the WildCoast international conservation team in San Diego, which monitors the health of the Baja coastline.

Pointing to the power shovels dredging fine silt from the half-completed new marina, Mr. Dedina says constant beach erosion means the marina's operator will have to pay for continual upkeep -- this, in a "port" that today lacks electricity and telephone service, to say nothing of food, lodging, medical facilities or fuel storage.

"Yachts? We see maybe one a month," says Sixto Alvarez of the Rafael Ortega Cruz fishing cooperative, sitting amid a collection of rotting skiffs behind the cooperative's decrepit ice house. The packing shed is abandoned, he explains, because all the abalone here have been fished out.

Hard to reach by road, Santa Rosalillita is almost equally inaccessible by sea. This part of the coast lies along a stretch that yachters call the Baja Bash, where high winds and dangerous currents make sea travel north to San Diego arduous, if not impossible. A transit marina, in other words, would count mainly on traffic going in one direction -- and require the concessionaire running a transport service to pass on to boat owners his cost of bringing empty trucks back after a trip.

"As a delivery skipper, I'm not the least bit worried about losing business," says Craig Kimball, a yacht hauler who charges up to $2,000 to bring vessels around Cabo San Lucas and into the Sea of Cortez from the West Coast. Operators using the Asphalt Canal might be able to charge an owner as little as $1,000, Mr. Kimball calculates, but then the owner would still have to pay to get himself and his guests over to the other side, with additional expenses for their food and lodging. "The whole idea is to have fun on the water -- not to save time," Mr. Kimball says.

Nonetheless, Fonatur officials say Mexico is committed to spending up to $70 million for the transpeninsula highway and $15 million apiece for new marinas on either coast -- just for this link in the Escalera Nautica project. It's the linchpin that will lure other developers to the Sea of Cortez, starting at Puerto Escondido, where Fonatur says it has commitments from golfer Greg Norman to design two golf courses for a new development with Boston venture-capital group Advent International; plans for the $200 million resort call for a 1,400-room hotel and state-of-the-art marina.

"To say we're committed is premature," says Diego Serebrisky, Advent's representative in Mexico City. "We are only at the study stage. We've promised to study this idea, but so far that's it."

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