BIG DREAMS FOR BAJA Escalera Nautica
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
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
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
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
. 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
"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."
Back to Home