Santos Santana takes in a breath and gives a long gaze at the man pounding away with his jackhammer on the pier, as a frogman dips in and out of the water splashing around the structure gradually being taken apart. For the lanky, 30-year veteran of Puerto Vallarta’s tourist trade, the project scheduled for completion sometime this year can’t come soon enough.
Already grappling with a slow season, boatmen and tour operators like Santana on Los Muertos Beach have an additional problem: they find it harder to load passengers directly from the beach’s sands while the old pier is torn down and replaced with a new one. “Less people, less money,” Santos sighs.
“I hope it’s better, so there will be better service,” he says. “This is the most popular zone of Puerto Vallarta.”
The new Los Muertos pier is just one aspect of the renovation of Puerto Vallarta’s downtown and adjoining areas. Even as what passes for this year’s winter high season kicks into full gear, a multi-pronged campaign to freshen up the Mexican resort’s historic center is underway.
Supported by federal, state and municipal funds, the downtown revitalization includes the expansion of sidewalks, the painting of houses, the removal of above-ground telephone and cable wires, the construction of a new foot bridge over the Rio Cuale, the creation of a long walking tour and the eventual opening of new museums.
According to Jose Luis Diaz Borioli, director of Puerto Vallarta’s municipal tourism department, the local government is planning to close Puerto Vallarta’s downtown city hall and move it to another section of the city later this year.
In its place, a museum of still-undetermined character will be established. And to oversee a new downtown and keep it orderly and thriving, a special governing and financing authority, or Patronato, with a long-term mission has been formed, Diaz says.
“We’re trying to make the downtown more active, and we’re trying to make an institution that will continue regardless of who is in government,” Diaz adds.
The tourism official says the world trend of revitalizing downtowns to grow tourism in places like Bilbao, Spain, makes it imperative for Puerto Vallarta to counter the competition and freshen up its own historic center. Of the three top Mexican resorts- Cancun, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta- the Pacific port on Banderas Bay has a unique draw, Diaz
“Puerto Vallarta is the only one that has a little Mexican town, and this little town 20 years ago was what made the difference in travelers coming to Puerto Vallarta,” he adds. Diaz and many other residents consider the recovery and preservation of Puerto Vallarta’s historic and cultural soul
a burning necessity.
As veteran Mexico travelers can attest, the Puerto Vallarta of 20 or 30 years ago is a far cry from the bustling city of today.
According to a 2008 book authored by Puerto Vallarta’s official historian Juan Manuel Gomez Encarnacion, the city’s population soared from 38,645 people in 1980 to 220,368 in 2005.
In recent years Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and Costco came to town; indoor shopping malls enclosed upscale stores; the Oxxo and Kiosco convenience store chains spread from block-to-block; condominium towers lorded over beaches; multicinemas rolled out their screens, and a trio of gaming parlours began sucking in money.
Prior to the global financial meltdown that struck in 2008, the Mexican government’s National Trust Fund for Tourism Development (FONATUR) projected that Puerto Vallarta and the so-called Riveria Nayarit on the northern end of Banderas Bay would have 53,000 available guest rooms to lodge six million tourists by 2025, according to Gomez.
Housing the working-class of the tourist trade, underdeveloped neighborhoods lacking paved roads and basic services popped up on the city’s edges, replicating a pattern of development present in virtuallly every other large Mexican and Latin American city.
Traffic jams, garbage disposal problems and beach pollution were all part of the package. Several years ago, talk became intense of the “Acapulcoization” of the once-tranquil town.
Some locals contend that the even more rapid development of Nuevo Vallarta and the Riveria Nayarit came at the expense of Puerto Vallarta proper.
Although Puerto Vallarta hosts the regional airport, many visitors are quickly whisked away to all-inclusive lodgings just across the state line in Nayarit, which benefits from the tourist dollars and any subsequent tax revenues that are collected. Indeed, the apperance of a specific Riveria Nayarit stand separate from the national one at last month’s international tourism fair in Spain attracted press notice.
Martin Puebla, vice-president of the Puerto Vallarta branch of the CANACO-Servtur business association, contends that Puerto Vallarta and the Riveria Nayarit are one destination that should be jointly promoted. He says that protecting the environment by improving wastewater treatment and adopting eco-friendly practices are essential steps in safeguarding
Puerto Vallarta’s indentity and future.
“At the end of the day, nature is why people come to Puerto Vallarta,” Puebla says. “People have become more sensitive about the ecosystem.”
According to the 13-year resident of the Pacific resort, the pending construction of a new, fast highway from the huge state capital of Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta will be an important test for balancing development and environmental protection.
Puebla, whose organization counts 350 local affiliates, contends the new road should avoid damage to the zone he calls “the mountain,” or the area that encompasses the biologically diverse Sierra Madre foothills. “If we destroy the mountain, another one won’t rise up,” Puebla says.
The business sector representative backs the downtown revitalization program currently underway, saying it is a chance to restore a charm that lured so many newcomers in the past. “The downtown will be only for tourists,” Puebla asserts. “We can save a piece like a capsule in time.”
Exhuding a laugh, Puebla adds, “People will see a Mexican town and not a Taco Bell.”
Puebla says three years of a crisis economy allowed some to step back a bit and re-envision what Puerto Vallarta should be like in the future. He compares his town’s experiences with the movie “A Day without Mexicans,” in which all sorts of calamities befall US citizens dependent on a migrant Mexican labor force that has suddenly disappeared.
“We are learning what it is to spend a day without tourists,” Puebla affirms.
Looking beyond the downtown project, Canaco-Servytur is in the process of elaborating a vision statement that will serve as a guide for future development, “Puerto Vallarta 2025,” he adds.
“We’ve learned the lesson that we have to work hard and see the future,” Puebla says. “If we don’t work the Puerto Vallarta brand,”
nobody will do it.”