Escalera Nautica May Spur Golf Development

With backing from president Vicente Fox, the government of Mexico is emparking on a $1.9-billion project that could – for better or worse – launch laid-back Baja California into the 21st century. The massive undertaking involves the creation of a necklace of two dozen marinas around the peninsula, hundreds of miles of new roads, 20 airports, hotels, condos and golf courses. Once initiated, the project will rival the biggest tourist development backed by the Mexican government since it converted the sleepy fishing village of Cancun into a popular destination with towering high rises and swim-up bars.

The backbone of the plan is called Escalera Nautica, which translated means “Nautical Ladder.” The idea involves 24 new marinas located about 120 miles apart on the west and east sides of the peninsula. The marinas would be used by yacht owners, who would put ashore and partake in the new local amenities. The yachtsmen would also hire local hauling services that would mount the boats on flatbeds and drive them across the desert, thus sparing seafarers a time-consuming trip around the 820-mile-long peninsula en route to the Sea of Cortez and its 900 tropical islands.

FONATUR, Mexico’s tourism-development agency, estimates the marina and road system would attract 76,000 yachts from the U.S. every year, bringing with them 860,000 “nautical” tourists. Those tourists, in turn, would help create 250,000 direct and indirect new jobs on the peninsula. These numbers appeal to President Fox, who’d like to boost Mexican tourism, which is listed third as the nation’s most important economic enterprise, behind manufacturing and oil.

So what’s the matter with these grandiose plans? For one thing, Baja’s rugged roadways are scattered with the hunks of abandoned American RVs and local cafes, cantinas and petrol stations. Previous efforts have been made to domesticate this rugged and arid part of the world, but most have failed. The peninsula has 2,000 miles of mostly unspoiled coastline. There’s very little freshwater available. Though dominant in the prosperous Cabo San Lucas area on the southernmost tip of Baja, desalinization plants are very expensive to build and operate.

Also, conservationists worry that if the project is built the boat owners won’t come. Homero Aridjis, one of Mexico’s leading environmentalists, says that if even if Escalera Nautica comes to fruition it will ruin Baja’s stark beauty and displace its rare wildlife. At worst, he told the Los Angeles Times, the project will set off an orgy of land speculation, causing outbreaks of “chaotic development” all along the peninsula.

Despite these negatives, construction is underway on the first marina in the tiny fishing village of Santa Rosalillita. Plans are also being finalized for new roads, marinas and golf courses near such wildlife hotbeds as the Loreto Bay National Park, Upper Gulf Biosphere Reserve, Sea of Corex Islands Wildlife Refuse and Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve.

In late 2001, the Mexican government announced that a group of investors led by Australian PGA Tour pro, Greg Norman, was planning to develop a $200-million golf resort near Loreto, 560 miles south of San Diego. It involves three five-star hotels, a mix of single- and multi-family homes, restaurants, two spas, a retirement community and a marina. The developers will build a new 18-hole golf course and improve the existing 18-hole layout in Loreto. FONATUR is providing the land, infrastructure and other needed resources for the project. The agency will coordinate the project and promote the resort after it opens.

Although the “Nautical Ladder” may indeed create new jobs for a country that is seeing its residents flee to the U.S. in search of work, Baja contains less than 3 percent of Mexico’s population of nearly 100 million. Perhaps the biggest question is: Would the people that President Fox and FONATUR hope Escalera Nautica employs be willing to relocate to remote outposts established for American yachtsmen?

Instead of Escalera Nautica being a case of, “If we build it they will come,” it appears more like, “If they build it who will work there?”