Can Mexico's Wild Baja California Endure New Marinas?

By Robert Roper
for National Geographic Traveler
Updated September 12, 2003
TravelWatch is produced by the geotourism editor for National
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Ten miles (16 kilometers) south of Ensenada the sprawl of the city gives way to bean fields and tomato farms. A lone coastal mountain—Cerro de la Soledad—rises up between the highway and the sea, and it catches my eye as I drive south on this early summer morning.

It catches my eye because there's nothing on it—just woven scrub in subtle shades of green, rose, and brown. No mini-ranchos, no garish signs. A promise of wild Baja California, Baja incognita, the Baja of legend that lies to the south.

Between the booming border zone (Tijuana to Ensenada, with a population of 1,600,000) and the tourist enclave of Los Cabos, a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) south at the peninsula's tip, wild lands and wild seas are still the rule. Yachts face long distances between refueling points on both coasts. And on this inconvenience the Mexican government of Vicente Fox has hung possibly the most ambitious, contentious project for tourism development in the Western Hemisphere: the Escalera Nautica ("nautical stairway").

"It's a multiple ecological rape of the peninsula," declares Alfonso Aguirre, an oceanographer and Ensenada businessman. Over the next decade, the Fox government proposes to complete a chain of 27 marina-resorts, none more than 130 miles (200 kilometers) from the next, along the Pacific coast and around the Sea of Cortés. To 5 existing ports, the plan would add 15 new developments and greatly expand and upgrade 7 hamlets.

The project spans thousands of miles of rugged coast, assorted national parks, five biosphere reserves, and the entire Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California). Many scientists consider this spawning ground essential to marine life throughout the Pacific; Conservation International has designated it a "biodiversity hotspot."

With the marinas will come hotels (over 10,000 new rooms), roads, 10 to 20 golf courses, new or improved airports, thousands of jobs, and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure. The Baja California of primitive anchorages, whale nurseries, sea turtle hatcheries, and mystical deserts, say critics, will be seriously compromised.

"Nonsense," replies Alejandro Rodriguez, project director at Fonatur, the federal tourism-development agency. "Escalera Nautica will be built subject to all environmental laws, under the close supervision of the minister of environment. We are not planning to build more Cancúns. Some marinas will not be big-big, and some may be very small, just a market and a fuel station."

Cancún's story is central to the debate. Cancún, on Mexico's Caribbean coast, was once just a coastal islet with a population of 200. In the 1970s, it became the focus of a major federal tourism program. Originally planned as a low-density, high-priced resort, the project evolved instead into a 13-mile (21-kilometer) strip of international-style high-rise hotels with over 25,000 rooms and three million visitors per year.

Cancún unquestionably generates jobs, and Mexicans flock there looking for opportunity. In a shadow city of 500,000, out of sight of the hotels, workers and their families live in often harsh conditions, many earning some of Mexico's lowest wages (U.S.$3.85 a day). Still, that's better than no wage. Cancún's success has taken an environmental toll: loss of 60,000 hectares (148,000 acres) of rain forest, degradation of the lagoon and nearby coral reef, and a radical drop in fish population.

If Cancún was Mexico's great tourism project for the 20th century, Baja is first priority for the 21st. The peninsula is a stronghold of President Fox's party, the PAN. In 2001, Fox flew there to launch Escalera Nautica, pledging U.S. $222 million to get the U.S. $1.9-billion project moving.

The goal, states Fonatur, is to offer "international-quality tourist services on land, on sea, and in the air." Plans call for as many as 900,000 travelers and 60,000 yacht visits per year (up from 8,000 now) by 2014.

Ruben Lara directs the regional office of Pronatura, the largest environmental organization in Mexico. "Typical Fonatur thinking," he says of Escalera Nautica, "very touristic, like Cancún." Mexico's former environment minister, Victor Lichtinger, insist that the goal is sustainable tourism. "We will allow development projects in our natural beauty spots," he states, "if and when the environment is unharmed."

Mexico's environmental ministry is about to make an official ruling on that. In late September or early October 2003, the ministry is to decide whether the ambitious project will carry on as originally planned or be downsized to minimize environmental impact. One issue, says Lara, is how the resorts will handle sewage and solid waste. "Even now, with a small population in some sites, we have big problems."

Alfonso Aguirre, the Ensenada oceanographer, agrees, pointing out that there are "very few examples worldwide of clean marina development. It's just very hard to do. Are Mexicans expected to become Swedish overnight? We don't have the culture, or the resources, yet."

Environmentalists find the scope of the project unnerving, but some welcome tourism—if it's the right kind.

"In principle there are endless possibilities for ecotourism," says Patricia Martinez, administrative director of a grassroots environmental group in Ensenada called Pro Esteros. "Local fishermen have been taking training programs in English and other skills they need to be science guides." The benefits of whale watching in San Ignacio Lagoon were a factor when Pro Esteros in 2000 helped to defeat a risky salt-works proposal there.

The victory protected the whales and coastline, "but the local people say, 'Protected from what? There's nothing here!'" notes Lara. "The schools are very poor; the roads unpaved; water and electricity uncertain. Some locals have become embittered against environmentalists. The people in these places have nothing."

For them, and for the legions of impoverished job-seekers who might come from afar, even wrongheaded development can be cause for enormous hope.

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