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November 10, 2011

Plans for Resort in Mexico Ignite Concern about Reef

By William Booth
Photo by Octavio Aburto ILCP

CABO PULMO, Mexico — Where once the waters here were almost barren of life, there are now vast schools of randy, spawning big-eyed jacks. The grouper lurking in the thriving coral have reached the size of overindulged toddlers. The tiger sharks are big enough to star in scary movies. The nesting turtles, devil rays and sea lions have returned, too, alongside a few tourists wearing flippers and masks.

Marine scientists express pure astonishment at what has happened in the 16 years since Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park was created at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California state, 60 miles north of Cabo San Lucas.

In August, researchers reported that the biomass of fish in the no-take marine reserve had increased by an unprecedented 463 percent in 10 years, offering hope that, if just left alone for a little while, the planet’s depleted seas can rebound.

But all is not well in Cabo Pulmo.

These days, the talk in the little solar-powered village of 200 Mexicans and expats is not the vigor of the reefs but, of all things, the European debt crisis.

On an empty spit of shadeless sand just a few miles north of the marine reserve, an ailing Spanish development conglomerate called Hansa Urbana plans to erect an all-inclusive mega-resort, a city of sun and fun the size of Cancun, according to its Web site, with 30,000 hotel beds, three golf courses, an airport capable of serving small jets, a major yacht marina, a shopping mall, a desalination facility and a wastewater treatment plant. A sister city would inevitably arise in the desert to house an equal or greater number of waiters, caddies and maids to serve the resort, called Cabo Cortes.

U.S. and Mexican environmental groups are appalled at the prospect of another Cancun here, so close to one of the northernmost coral reefs in the world. Greenpeace labeled it the worst kind of “predatory tourism.” A U.N. delegation is coming this month to investigate what is happening to its World Heritage Site. A letter-writing campaign — with crayoned cards by elementary-school children — has begun, imploring President Felipe Calderon, who bills himself a leader on sustainable tourism and climate change, to intercede to halt the project or scale it way down.

As for the developers, Omar Vidal — the director general of the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico, here to snorkel the reef with his daughter — said environmental activists are not even sure who controls the resort project anymore.

Ripples from Europe’s crisis

Hansa bought the Cabo Cortes property in 2007 during the global real estate boom. A Spanish savings bank, Caja de Ahorros del Mediterraneo (CAM), lent Hansa millions. But the bubble burst, and the bank failed a stress test in July. The government-controlled Bank of Spain was forced to bail out CAM with $3.8 billion.

CAM had avoided the subprime mortgage sludge in the United States, but it was up to its eyeballs in tanking European real estate. To stay afloat as the economy worsened, Hansa gave CAM the assets in Mexico, and, in return, the bank wiped out $114 million of Hansa’s debt. The Bank of Spain was planning to auction the floundering CAM to the highest bidder but has delayed the sale until after the Spanish elections this month.