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Tourist Town at a CrossroadsKent Paterson for Salem-News.com
Today's story is a general update on the situation in the town of Zihuatanejo on Mexico's Pacific Coast.
(ZIHUATANEJO Guerrero, Mexico) - Flanked by multi-colored palm trees sparkling in lights of psychedelia, a group of top-hatted singers entertains a crowd of locals and tourists with a rendition of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York." Later, backed by a bass-thumping band, 17-year old high school student Elida Salbasa belts out her version of Tejana legend Selena's "Like a Flower."
"It's very good for the people," says Salbasa, in reference to the nightime gathering in Zihuatanejo's waterfront plaza. "I like it." Salbasa's presentation was part of this year's Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo Cultural Festival, a January-April affair that features evening musical performances, art exhibitions and beach films in this community of about 100,000 people located in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero.
The festival is one piece of the "Unlimited Fun" campaign aimed at bringing more people to the Pacific Coast destination. Upcoming events include a March food and wine festival featuring the appearance of master chef Rick Bayless. Zihuatanejo's annual Carnaval, which is usually held in Feburary, also will take place in March this year.
"This will intensify the tourist offer. We are working on the culture and gastronomy of here" says Artemisa Alarcon, the Costa Grande regional delegate for the Guerrero State Secretariat of Tourism Promotion (SEFOTUR).
"We aren't just a beach. It's pretty but many places have this." In this spirit, SEFOTUR and other agencies are promoting an archaeological zone located about 20 minutes by car from Zihuatanejo. "This is something that is very important for enriching Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo," Alarcon adds.
Zihuatanejo, which is situated a few miles down a winding hill from the mega-resort of Ixtapa, is getting a new look. Splashing streets and curbs with fresh paint, workmen are in the final phases of a publicly-financed, $9 million-plus downtown revitalization project that has erected clay-tiled roofs supported by palm columns and beams over streets. Neatly inscribed signs now drape the names of local businesses.
Once vulnerable to the elements, pedestrians can now navigate downtown shielded from the sun's rays and, hopefully, later be protected from the summer monsoons that pound the town.
Twinkling in white, lights strung below the roofs give each dowtown evening the appearance of a Christmas that never ends. A pedestrian bridge over the Boquita Canal has a new sign that advertises the "Madera Tourist Colony" where visitors can plug into the Internet and access other services. Even the half-mutilated mannequin that leaned precariously for years and years from the second-floor of a building across from the main beach has gotten a makeover, suddenly reborn as a dark-skinned indigenous woman attired in traditional dress.
Despite the economic crisis of the past three years, downtown Zihuatanejo abounds with new boutiques, art galleries, bars, gourmet-style restaurants, silver jewelry shops, and more new bars. Some old-timers complain of the noise from boisterous drinking holes, though, and every evening a roving truck shakes the streets with a loudspeaker and large billboard promoting a strip club.
The atmosphere gives off a whiff of Santa Barbara, offers a hint of Santa Fe and vibrates a burst of South Beach. Alarcon says the clay and palm materials used in the downtown revitalization project represent the new "Zihuatanejo Style" invented by local, state and federal tourism promoters. The concept, she says, is to use local products of the land and regional architectural styles to give Zihuatanejo its own image and brand.
The transformation of Zihuatanejo comes during an exceptionally difficult time. Like other Mexican resorts, Zihuatanejo has suffered from a tourist downturn variously attributed to the international economic crash, airline cancellations, US passport requirements for Mexico travel, the 2009 swine flu scare and violence related to the so-called narco war.
While many establishments still do a brisk weekend business, some small hotel operators report not renting a single room for months on end. Cruise ship arrivals are noticeably down from several years back; the February arrival of the Oceana created something of a minor stir, but many passengers largely spent their time in town window-shopping.
A major ocean-side development slated to include a golf course, hotels and condominiums is on hold. Once hip with foreign diners a few years back, the old Sanka Grill stands shuttered, its exterior slapped with government legal notices of alleged non-payment of property taxes.
Locals are particularly sensitive about the issue of narco-violence and how it might be keeping tourists away. "It is a secure place. It's very beautiful," Alarcon insists. "(Violence) is a situation that exists on our margins, magnified by the media, which has to report the news, but it is removed from us."
From 2005 to 2009, Zihuatanejo experienced a number of violent incidents, some of which were connected to the Mexican Navy's seizure of a multi-ton load of cocaine in nearby ocean waters, but the town has largely calmed down since then. Still, the frequent patrols of Guerrero State Police equipped with machine-guns mounted on the beds of their trucks and the occasional appearances of masked soldiers on the streets gives onlookers a visual taste of militarized Mexico.
Amador Cadena, president of the Las Gatas Beach Association, suggests another reason fewer tourists are coming: bay pollution. Cadena cites the untreated wastewater that is dumped into the Salinas lagoon and then empties into the bay, as well as a contentious rock jetty, El Espigon, he blames for disrupting the bay's currents and tapping the contamination.
"People are being driven away because of the pollution," Cadena asserts. "(Information) has been published on the Internet, and we can't deny it."
Cadena compares Zihuatanejo's beautification programs with a nice garden that has a "dead cow" plopped in the middle of it. The Zihuatanejo civic leader, whose group represents business owners and residents of a popular beach near the bay's entrance, says cleaning up Las Salinas and bay pollution is an urgent necessity. Failing to do so, he warns, will keep the "quality tourists" from coming. "Zihuatanejo lives from tourists," he adds. "And if there are no tourists, there is no money."
Cadena's companion, tourist services operator Alfredo Valdeolivar, agrees, adding that "everyone" needs work and a "safe and clean place."
Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico
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