Acapulco, revisited

Acapulco. Gorgeous, still — much of it. But it has problems.

By Alan Salomón.

ACAPULCO, Mexico — Sorry, but for this story we’ll skip the standard references to Elizabeth Taylor’s third wedding, JFK’s honeymoon and cliff divers.

First, the news: Grupo Autofin, already a strong tourism-industry presence here, announced plans this summer to invest $1 billion in new construction and upgrades along the Pacific coastline well south of the heart of the city and its famous bay. Included are high-end hotels, renovation of its 6,000-room Princess Hotel, a golf course, eco-park and other stuff.

For years, development had drifted southward toward and past the airport (also getting a major redo), and now this. In the New Acapulco, condo towers abound, all guarded. The marvelous Banyan Tree Cabo Marques (opened in 2010) is here, too, sequestered on cliffs above Puerto Marques and behind security that rivals Camp David’s.

What impact that billion dollars will have on the magical Acapulco — the one with the magnificent bay whose hills have sparkled so romantically at night since the Eisenhower administration — we probably won’t know until 2022, Groupo Autofin’s target date for completion.

What we know now: Acapulco is struggling.

“Acapulco,” said Manuel Barrera, a lifelong native who gives tours when he isn’t shooting wedding photos, “was the first and only (beach) destination in Mexico, and it was like this for a long time. Then came Puerto Vallarta, Ixtapa, Cancun, Huatulco — many, many places.

“And unfortunately, the modernization of Acapulco never came.”

That’s part of the reason non-Mexican tourists don’t come here much anymore.

The numbers are astonishing. Of the 8 million tourists who came to Acapulco in 2005, 340,000 were international, primarily from the United States — a serious drop from earlier decades but only a hint of what was to come. In 2014, nearly 9 million visitors came here; of those 9 million, the number of international tourists was … 50,848. The rest were well-off Mexican nationals, largely from Mexico City.

Reporter to cabbie Jose: “Where are all the gringos?” Jose to reporter: “Cancun.”

There’s more: As recently as 2010, 138 cruise ships sailed passengers into Acapulco’s port. In 2014, the number of ship arrivals was … eight.

Numbers were up slightly in 2015 and again early this year, but those ships were headed for the Panama Canal and on other extended itineraries.

What happened to Acapulco?

“The first destination that appeared after the first glory years of Acapulco (the 1950s and ’60s) was Cancun,” said Piquis Rochin, international promotion director for the city’s marketing office. “And we underestimated the fast growth of Cancun.”

The Mexican government helped develop Cancun, starting in 1970, from essentially a fishing village into a tourism monster. Soon after, it did the same (with more modest results) in Ixtapa. Later, Huatulco.

All were planned developments. Unlike those, Aca­pulco’s awakening and growth as a vacation destination just sort of happened.

So for Americans and Canadians and Europeans, with new, attractive options, Acapulco became optional.

The drug-related violence that began in 2011, and from time to time makes headlines even now, chased away business. Not fair, say locals.

“The problems,” said Melchor Gonzalez, manager of the refurbished ­Mirador Hotel, “are for the people in the cartels, not for the tourists.”

“The media,” say people from hotel managers to bellmen to bartenders and waitstaff to shopkeepers, are to blame for misperceptions.

Yet heavily armed soldiers are a presence throughout the tourist zones, including at beaches and in front of leading hotels. Which sends a mixed message: If violence toward tourists isn’t an issue, why the troops where the tourists are?

There’s more. The U.S. State Department issued an advisory, updated in April and still (as of this writing) in force, that bars government personnel from the city. Not reassuring. Plus inconvenience: Today, only Houston offers nonstop flights from North America, making getting here a time-consuming hassle for most people.

Meanwhile (and less visible in the media): Successful efforts to divert and treat wastewater have restored safe swimming to Acapulco Bay. The beaches are busy again, and they look and smell just fine. Ship arrivals are increasing, albeit slowly. Talks are ongoing that could restore more nonstop flights from North America next year.

Increasingly, some established hotels, and not just the Princess, are pouring money into upgrades, including iconic Las Brisas, with its familiar pink jeeps and discreet, private pools. Splashy new restaurants are opening. A remarkable Diego Rivera mosaic, on an exterior wall at a house in a forgotten part of town, is getting fresh attention.

At night, the hills surrounding Acapulco Bay still sparkle like the stars — just the way you remember it. If you squint a little and ignore the troops, it looks about the way Liz would remember it, and Jack and Jackie and countless other honeymooners (including, well, the Solomons).

And — OK — those cliff divers. Heart-pounding as ever.

Might be worth a revisit. But just to be safe, keep one — cynical — eye on the media.

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