Originally created 10/01/00

Acapulco strives to recover as tourist mecca



ACAPULCO, Mexico - This balmy bay has seen it all. It was during a vacation in Acapulco in the 1960s that novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez came up with the idea for 100 Years of Solitude. It was here that Bill Clinton brought a young woman named Hillary for their honeymoon in 1975.

Today, Acapulco is at the center of a dilemma: Can a town with real history, and almost 1 million mostly poor residents, compete with antiseptic beach resorts that have pushed poverty - and most of Mexican reality - conveniently out of sight?

"It's going to be tough. We're at a disadvantage," acknowledges Mayor Zepherino Torreblanca. He's Acapulco's first opposition-party mayor since 1923, when the mayor was fatally shot before he could finish his term.

In the 1940s, Acapulco was an exotic resort for the Hollywood set. Many a film of the day showed the cliff divers of La Quebrada, who then as now leap headfirst off a 136-foot cliff into a narrow cove on the Pacific Coast just west of Old Acapulco.

By the 1960s, the government had made Acapulco a shining resort of high-rise hotels - drawing families from inland villages to squatters' camps in the hillsides above the bay.

It was the peasants in those shantytowns who suffered when Hurricane Pauline came ashore in late 1997, killing 150 people and leaving thousands homeless.

As the hotels rose, environmental protection was ignored; the bay became polluted; corruption became common; and some peasants were robbed of their land.

In the 1980s, hotel developers expropriated Sabino Palma Rodriguez's beachside farm after he had struggled for five decades to buy it. He was never paid for the land and ended his days in a modest wood-and-stone house a few hundred yards from the sparkling resorts built on his farm.

He died in poverty in November at a reported 117 years of age. In January, developers revealed that for years hundreds of thousands of dollars - the payment for the expropriated land - have lain in a local bank, waiting for someone to claim it. Mr. Palma's relatives said developers kept the existence of the money a secret.

With stories like Mr. Palma's across the city, the poor finally rebelled at the ballot box against the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which was founded in 1929 and has run Acapulco - and most of Mexico - ever since.

Mr. Torreblanca was elected in 1999 on the votes of the poor, and he now has to perform a balancing act: extend more of the tourism wealth to the shantytowns while bringing back the foreign tourists who have abandoned the now-fading resort.

Foreigners used to represent 80 percent of the city's tourists. Since the 1980s that figure has fallen to about 20 percent, a result of competition from new resorts such as Ixtapa and Huatulco along the Pacific coast.

A state tourism development official discouraged Acapulco from even trying to lure foreign tourists any more and focus instead on deals for Mexican tourists.

But Mr. Torreblanca thinks he can lure the foreigners back by creating a "historic Acapulco" centered on the 17th-century Spanish fort of San Diego. He wants to cut down on traffic and spruce up the 1940s-era downtown, which was a backdrop for movies such as Orson Welles' 1947 The Lady from Shanghai.

"We want to make a comeback like Miami did, by returning to our origins," Mr. Torreblanca says, referring to the preservation of Miami Beach's art-deco hotels.

History may not be enough, however. While Acapulco has been a major seaport since the 1500s, Ixtapa and Huatulco - like Cancun on the Caribbean - were carefully planned to segregate tourists from Mexican workers. Tourists in the new resorts usually see only coyly designed shopping centers and manicured lawns, not the Mexican towns whose residents work in those businesses.

Acapulco - despite its attempts to draw tourists with bungee-jumping, flashy discos, beachfront bars and even ecotourism in the surrounding hills and lagoons - is all too often just an overbuilt, high-rise city on the sea, a weekend getaway for Mexico City's middle class.

Some of Mr. Torreblanca's constituents, vendors who eke out a living hawking everything from wood carvings to hair braiding, are a part of the problem.

"The vendors bother you all the time, even on the beach," said Laura Soria, a Buenos Aires schoolteacher. She said it was her first visit to Acapulco and might be her last.

Mr. Torreblanca concedes that the vendors can be problematic. "Some people would like to gas them," he notes. "But you have to offer them alternatives."

Salvador Zacharias, leader of a vendors' union, said, "It's seen as something shameful to be a vendor."

But, he adds, "It's what you do to avoid stealing for a living."