Puerto Vallarta: After the storms

The busy streets of Puerto Vallarta. (Photo courtesy of weasello via Flickr under Creative Commons license.)

The busy streets of Puerto Vallarta. (Photo courtesy of weasello via Flickr under Creative Commons license. License terms below.)

Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur

Clemente Perez remembered with fondness a pivotal moment in the development of modern Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco.  Perez said that as a younger man he helped ferry by canoe the cast and crew of the 1964 John Huston classic  “The Night of the Iguana” to the film shoot in nearby Mismaloya. “Very beautiful, precious eyes,” is how the 71-year-old boat ticket seller recalled actress Ava Gardner.

In his long life on tropical Banderas Bay, Perez has watched a small fishing village transform into a booming tourist

The Casa Velas Hotel terracein Puerto Vallarta. (Photo courtesy of Hotel Casa Velas via Flickr under Creative Commons license. License terms below.)

The Casa Velas Hotel terracein Puerto Vallarta. (Photo courtesy of Hotel Casa Velas via Flickr under Creative Commons license. License terms below.)

resort and then a city of more than 255,000 people struggling to maintain its economic status amid the gales of crisis. Seated on Los Muertos Beach, Perez told how three separate piers have stood on the spot to send tourists into the waters of Mexico’s expansive bay. Inaugurated early last month, the new pier boasts a giant sail form that rises into the sky and lights up in purple as the night falls.

For Perez, the conclusion of the project couldn’t have come too soon. Kicked off more than two years ago, the construction dragged on far longer than originally promised and dissuaded many tourists, who were already plummeting in numbers for other reasons, from dipping into the surf in order to board the small craft that criss-cross the bay, the longtime Puerto Vallarta resident bemoaned.

“We were waiting. We wanted to work, but we had to tolerate the situation,” Perez said of the predicament faced by the boatmen. “We sometimes barely had enough to eat, and we had to suffer because of the depressed economy.”

Perez’s words find ready company in today’s Puerto Vallarta. Since 2008, the Pacific resort has lost well over 1 million tourists, including 800,000 air travelers and about 250,000 cruise ship passengers, according to the latest numbers reported in the local press or posted on the website of the Puerto Vallarta Integral Port Administration.

The statistics don’t include Mexican nationals who failed to come either by bus or private vehicle.  In the third week of January,  smack dab in the middle of the international tourism high season, the Tribuna de la Bahia daily reported a lazy but “acceptable” hotel occupancy rate of 65 percent.

A team of researchers from the Autonomous University of Baja California and the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur recently found that the number of foreign tourists visiting Puerto Vallarta dropped from 1,057,029 in 2005 to 431,181 in 2010. Puerto Vallarta, the researchers postulated, had entered the historic “decline phase” of tourism experienced by other, once-hot travel destinations.

Government officials, tourism industry leaders and locals blame different factors for the crash- the world economic disaster, the 2009 swine flu scare, media publicity of Mexico’s security crisis, high fuel costs, Mexican and U.S airline route cancellations and troubles, and competition from other tourist getaways.  And the declining value of the dollar to the peso means U.S. tourists get noticeably less for their money in Puerto Vallarta and Mexico than they did a couple of years ago.

Toting a small child, Elvira Contreras took a break from answering a lengthy survey that is being sponsored by the new municipal government to gauge citizen opinions on economics, infrastructure, policing and other issues for the 2012-2015 Puerto Vallarta Development Plan.  Located in an outlying, working-class neighborhood, Contreras’ rudimentary family home floods easily during the rainy season and direly needs material upgrading, she told FNS.

“Our husbands don’t work. Sometimes we eat, sometimes we don’t,” Contrereas added. The 40-year resident of Puerto Vallarta said she worked for ten years at a condominium complex in Mismaloya but left the job after developing foot problems. According to Contreras,  she was paid less than $1,000  in severance pay required under Mexican labor law. “Many, many people” are in similar financial circumstances, Contreras said. “There is very little work. We need more work to eat.”

Signs exist, though, that Puerto Vallarta is starting to crawl back from the brink. Lately a scattering of new businesses including a micro-brewery and a Vietnamese eatery have opened up shop, and even some residential construction is visible. The focus of a redevelopment conflict  between residents and the former municipal government last year,  Itubride Street climbs up a cobble-stone street to give an immense view of Banderas Bay and the old downtown of Puerto Vallarta.

A four-story “boutique” residential  complex  under construction on the lower end of the street  is expected to be finished by June, according to construction workers.  Billed as  feeling like “you’re living on top of the world,”  the one to three bedroom condos start at $180,000.

In this winter high season, bursts of energy flutter on the bay front.  Events have included a battle of rock bands, a mini-festival of Uruguayan film, the second annual national horsemanship competition, numerous charity benefits,  theater performances, and much more.  A new bird festival is scheduled for March.

In the heart of the city’s so-called Romantic Zone, Basilio Badillo Street is bouncing with life.  Recently, an upscale Argentine steak house joined a pricey wine store and Italian-style diners to wrestle for the bucks of those who can still afford fine dining. On Saturdays, hundreds of people stroll up and down Basilio Badillo shopping and socializing when the Old Town Farmers Market convenes.  Every second Friday, local merchants stage the “Southside Shuffle” on the same street as a business promotion, enticing customers with live music, dancing and drinks.

The owner of a clothing store on Basilio Badillo, former Indianan Carol Smith came to Puerto Vallarta 16 years ago and found a new career as a wedding coordinator. “I’m one of those retirees,” she sighed. “I came here to relax and decided I needed to do something because I was bored.” But after marriages followed the route of mortgages, Smith switched to retail. And she has been pleasantly surprised by the reception. “Business has been better than I expected opening a new business,” she said.

But like other residents interviewed by FNS,  Smith noted a change in the nature of tourism, with the  year’s turn-out not unlike the waves that lap at the shores  before rolling back into the sea.  So far, the 2012-2013  high season has been “more difficult than others,” said Veronica Castrejon, the owner of Café Vayan across the street from the south end of Basilio Badillo.

A new, topsy-turvy world of tourism, heralded by vacationers bringing less money to spend than before the Great Recession, has made businesses planning  difficult,  Castrejon said. To cope with a new economic reality, the restaurateur started an all-you-can-eat spaghetti special that costs about five dollars.   “This has functioned very well,” she added.

In a speech last month, Ignacio Cadena, the new president of the Puerto Vallarta and Banderas Bay Hotel Association, laid out the elements of the tourism crisis and possible solutions to it.  “The only benefit that crises bring is that they awaken creativity and innovation,” Cadena said. “They awaken the ingenuity of man and groups..and make them discover ways that weren’t visualized before.”

Enrique Tovar, Puerto Vallarta’s assistant director of tourism for the new municipal administration, projected that his city will host between three and five percent more tourists in 2013 than in 2012, when approximately three million people visited.  Tovar said last year’s numbers do not include the 139 cruise ships carrying 344, 906  passengers that stopped by the port for brief visits.  In 2013, the API expects 80 cruise ships with 164,062 passengers to dock.

Tovar’s small department is part of a tri-governmental structure charged with promoting and shaping the local tourism experience, with other entities in the Jalisco state government and federal government also having their hands on Puerto Vallarta’s future.  All three branches of government will have new administrations in 2013, and work-plans are still in the offing.  Locally, Tovar’s department has started free, regular walking tours from the historic city hall.  Visiting statues, sculptures and notable buildings, the idea is for tourists “to know something that perhaps they didn’t know before,”  Tovar said in an interview.

According to the official, three main elements bless Puerto Vallarta in tough times-geography, climate and friendliness.  In Tovar’s estimation, diverse lodging and culinary offerings that fit the needs of different economic strata are other advantages.

“Puerto Vallarta has tourism services for every niche. We have one star hotels all the way to grand tourism,” Tovar added. “Fortunately, Vallarta has a primary place in restaurants of high quality, which have made us famous far from here. You can eat everything from a simple taco, authentically Mexican, to gourmet dishes.”

Tovar could also add that watching wildlife is another big plus for Puerto Vallarta, despite the sprawling urbanization that’s descended on Banderas Bay.  This reporter recently witnessed elegant formations of pelicans, countless other migratory and resident birds,  numerous iguanas, dolphins, six humpback whales-including one creature who did a wild series of vertical leaps from the water-and a pair of rare river otters fishing for a meal.

Parallel with the walking tours an emerging emphasis is being placed on connecting the downtown and Romantic Zone with the Malecon, the long boardwalk that is widely regarded as the special draw of Puerto Vallarta.

Walkers who aren’t distracted by the human sand statues, thumping music or infinite pitches from street vendors might notice the metal posts protruding from the ground that contain tidbits of local and regional history which give insights into contemporary Mexico. Careful readers will learn that 20,000 indigenous warriors resisted the Spanish invasion of Banderas Bay in 1525; that tobacco was an important regional crop; and that illegal silver mining pockmarked the Sierra in the late 19th century.

Now largely finished after a controversial renovation, the new Malecon has taken shape after an embarrassing and tragic incident.  In December 2011 Aide Maribel Pacheco Arizmendi, a 31-year-old school teacher from the  state of Mexico was posing  for a photo at one of the supposedly finished new statues when she was suddenly jolted by a charge of electricity and killed.

In response to a complaint filed over the fatal photo take, the official Jalisco State Human Rights Commission (CEDH)  issued a recommendation to Puerto Vallarta’s municipal government in December 2012. Besides compensation for the victim’s survivors, the CEDH urged the new administration of Mayor Ramon “El Mochilas” Guerrero to recheck the Malecon’s electrical infrastructure, guarantee adequate medical assistance is readily available in the immediate vicinity and assure  an incident such as the Pacheco tragedy won’t happen again, among other measures.

Armando Lopez,  co-owner of the Dona Raquel restaurant a block up from the Malecon,  said his business was one of many affected by the renovation as people avoided going to the district when the reconstruction was underway.

Added to changes in the economic climate, Lopez calculated  business is down 50 percent from what it was prior to the crisis.  Lopez and his wife run a cenaduria, or an evening diner,  specializing  in tasty pozole, tacos, sopes and other traditional fare.  Surrounded by newer burger and pizza joints, Lopez attributed the survival of his 45-year-old business to loyal local and international customers, including the sons and daughters of older regulars who’ve formed a trans-generational clientele.

“Americans used to be afraid to eat spicy food, but now they come,” Lopez said during a quiet evening in his restaurant.  In terms of customer breakdown, approximately 70 percent are Mexican and 30 percent foreigner, he said.

“The people of Vallarta are very noble. They keep coming.” Lopez said.  “If it weren’t for the people of Vallarta, we would have already closed.”  Like other old-timers, Lopez’s eyes sparkled when asked about the old days. Originally from the state of Morelos, Lopez came to Puerto Vallarta back in 1978 and found a much smaller, more  trusting and “super-pretty” place.

Later,  big city problems came afloat.  Heavy traffic, reckless and homicidal city bus drivers, obnoxious drunks stumbling around the streets,  and pollution all creeped into the burg.  Last month, garbage  piled up in residential neighborhoods for several days because of a legal dispute involving the privatized trash collection service.

An unprecedented population boom coincided with the onset of the Great Recession, which stripped thousands of a viable livelihood. A beachside lumpen-proletariat of sex workers, small-time drug dealers, pool sharks and other hustlers consolidated.  Like other Latin American towns and cities, street vendors proliferated.

“Look for whales this month, not street peddlers,” a  sign reads in the window of a Malecon leather shop, appealing for visitors not to patronize the street sellers because they “work outside the law.” Basically, it  stands as  a futile warning.
Informal vendors of all ages, sexes and colors abound. By day and night, they hawk flowers, candies, gum, jewelry, miniature flash lights, oranges, peanuts, little indigenous dolls, and other interesting items.  A young man standing near the beach asked the reporter if he wanted to purchase a wooden pipe. When informed the answer was no,  the vendor offered his other line of products only to hear the same, disappointing reply each time.  “Weed?” “Coke?” “Crack.”

Public safety and the so-called drug war are sensitive and recurring topics of local conversation, with many residents insisting that their town is getting a bad rap and costing them money and jobs. “People tend to paint all of Mexico with the same brush,” boutique operator Carol Smith said, adding that Mexico is a huge country like its northern neighbor. “If they’re riots in L.A., would you not go to Chicago? Yes, there are places to stay away from-just like in the U.S. and Canada, but Mexico is a relatively safe country.”

The city government’s Enrique Tovar also criticized media portrayals. “The perception of security in the country isn’t just a problem of Vallarta’s,” Tovar said. “It affects all of us, but you emphasize what is good about a destination. That’s what we do-emphasize the positive of our destination.”

While Puerto Vallarta is a far cry from Ciudad Juarez at height of  its violence or other current battlefronts of the narco war,  it has experienced a smattering of troubling episodes which have raised public concern. In January, posters and banners of disappeared persons appeared in different parts of the resort city.

For example, Jose Ignacio  Rosas Gomez, 11, was allegedly kidnapped in front of the El Canelo restaurant on October 25, 2012, by a 25-30 year-old man driving a sports car with tinted windows. Daisy Griselda Diaz, Ramon Cruz Guerrero and 15-year-old Alejandra Pelayo were separately reported missing.

Some locals worry about kidnapping and extortion, though more cases have been reported across the nearby state line in Nayarit, which has different police forces. When shown a newspaper article reporting last month’s arrest in Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit,  of a man identified as Shawn Cafferty Lucas of Virginia for allegedly extorting another foreigner, a Puerto Vallarta waiter quipped, “That’s globalization!”

Like an aging but durable ship thrust into rough waters, Puerto Vallarta has weathered the big storms of the post-2008 era. Yet it’s an open question whether the legendary days of yesteryear, defined by the free-spending gringo, will ever return.  Medium and long-term structural issues shaping the U.S. economy will surely influence the destiny of the Mexican resort,  casting doubt on assumptions of boundless, future growth.

Two opposite but important segments of the U.S.-origin tourist market-the young and the elderly-confront serious pressures on their disposable income.  While high youth unemployment and a historic student loan debt burden thin the ranks of potential young visitors from the north,  mounting efforts to gut Social Security and slash pensions of all kinds could put a serious damper on the vacation fantasies of the fabled Baby Boomers who are still talked about in the world tourism industry as a fountain of  wealth just waiting to get tapped.

It remains to be seen if  this year’s wave of fewer and spendthrift  gringos will become the new normal.  Like Acapulco and other older resorts, Mexican national tourism looms as the new mainstay, a trend partially reflected in Puerto Vallarta’s ranking as the second largest  vacation destination in the country after Cozumel that registered an increase in hotel occupancy by national tourists in 2012, according to the National Tourism Business Council.

In the dawning of the new Puerto Vallarta,  pozole man Armando Lopez is perhaps the eternal optimist. “I have a lot of hope it will improve,” he mused. “There are new leaders in Mexico. Hopefully, the economy will get better for us.”

Frontera NorteSur: 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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