Baja Marinas Project OK'd
By Chris Kraul and Kenneth R. Weiss, Times Staff
Tuesday, November 11, 2003
MEXICO CITY < Mexican officials have
approved a controversial project to develop a necklace
of marinas around Baja California over the objections
of environmentalists who say it will endanger the breeding
grounds of sea turtles, migrating whales and other wildlife.
The Escalera Nautica, or Nautical Ladder,
will consist of 27 marinas ringing Baja California and
is designed to attract armadas of pleasure boaters from
the Pacific Coast of North America. The initial development
is projected to cost $127 million but could increase
if planned airports, hotels and golf course resorts
Planning for the project is being handled
by FONATUR, the same government tourism agency that
created tourist meccas in Cancun, Los Cabos and Ixtapa.
The project is part of a plan to develop the 1,000-mile-long
Baja peninsula, most of which is barren, roadless and
The developers want to create a chain
of marinas spaced roughly 120 miles apart that boaters
could hopscotch among on lengthy trips spending money
along the way. FONATUR estimates that at least 50,000
boats will visit annually, attracting 1 million tourists
and creating 250,000 jobs by 2014.
U.S.-based yachters have scoffed at such
optimistic projections. They note that the rough Pacific
waters off Baja weed out all but the hardiest sailors.
The yachters say those who make the trip
fall into two groups: frugal retirees who prefer natural
anchorages to expensive marinas, and wealth yacht owners,
who pay crews to sail the long passage to the tip of
Baja. The owners then fly to Cabo San Lucas to meet
The project will include a road or "land
bridge" midway down Baja, on which many boats could
be towed between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California
without making the long passage around the peninsula.
Environmentalists' concerns focus on Baja's Scammon's
Lagoon and San Ignacio Lagoon on the Pacific Coast where
California gray whales give birth. Bahia de los Angeles
on Baja's east coast provides the feeding grounds for
sea turtles, marine mammals and whale sharks.
Fishing groups in the Mexican state of
Sinaloa oppose the project, saying yachters will take
over their coastal workplaces. Homero Aridjis, a Mexico
City environmentalist and poet, said he fears that the
Gulf of California on the east side of the peninsula
could be overrun by boats and unbridled development.
The late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau once referred
to it as the world's largest aquarium.
At a news conference in Mexico City on
Thursday, Mexico's environmental secretary Alberto Cardenas
Jimenez said development would follow strict guidelines
to make sure that "we continue conserving and protecting
our rich natural resources."
FONATUR director John McCarthy said Escalera
Nautica is the "most important tourism project
of this administration and possibly the most important
of our history because of its regional character.
" While acknowledging that Baja has
tremendous tourism potential, Aridjis questioned the
ability of the government to follow its own rules. "It
could open the door to chaotic development beyond the
control of a government that can't even control the
sale of gum," he said.
A study released this year by EDAW, an
international consulting firm based in San Francisco,
concluded that Mexican tourist officials had exaggerated
demand by up to 600%.
The study, commissioned by the Los Altos,
Calif.-based David and Lucile Packard Foundation, recommended
that any tourist investment should focus on improving
facilities at ports in Ensenada, Los Cabos, San Carlos,
La Paz, Loreto and Mazatlan.
"The most important thing is that
that project doesn't make any sense economically,"
said Serge Dedina, the San Diego-based co-director of
Wildcoast, an international conservation group.
Kraul reported from Mexico City and Weiss from Los Angeles.
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