Fonatur, The Original Los Cabos Developer

We might not be here if not for them
BY: EDGAR GONZALEZ

Fonatur is an acronym of a federal agency created in 1974. The letters stand for some Spanish words you’re never going to remember, so let it go. More important is Fonatur is the economic engine that started Los Cabos by buying up large tracts of land, installing the infrastructure like electricity, roads, and water, and then selling smallish chunks of that semi developed land to private developers who would take development further.

Fonatur's objective in Los Cabos, and in all of its projects, was to jump start development back when there was not the investment capital nor the enthusiasm for development of tourist areas. So the national trust fund for tourist development (Fonatur) was created.

In the seventies the Mexican government, Fonatur, decided on five tourist areas to promote, calling them CIPs, another acronym, this one  for “integrally planned centers” in Spanish. This was the most important effort made in tourist matters in Mexico up to that date. The purpose of this was to rescue from economic depression marginal zones with touristic potential all over the country, and create jobs.

The points considered when choosing the places to develop were they had to be scarcely populated, they had to have to have singular beauty in their landscape, there should be enough land to develop and lastly, the population should have limited options for economic development. That described Los Cabos at that time. All Cabo had was the cannery for jobs.

The original areas of Fonatur’s generosity were Cancun, Huatulco, Los Cabos, Loreto and Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo. All the infrastructure in these projects was to be built from the ground up to avoid all the problems associated with disorganized growth that older tourist spots like Acapulco and Matzatlan were suffering. Too be fair, both those towns were first and foremost driven by commerce, there simply were no dedicated tourist towns.

All five of these projects were small towns with marginal economies when this project was initiated, so the first problem they had to resolve was adequate ways to get there, via air and/or land. So here in Los Cabos the  Carretera Peninsular or highway 1 was built. Or more exactly they finished a road that had been in construction for decades.

The CIP projects all had five points to consider and implement.

New housing for the builders of the projects

Golf course

Marina

Hotels

Tourist focused real estate

Retail business

From the five original projects Cancun was the most successful, up to the point that it surpassed its original plan, overflowing into the surrounding areas. Los Cabos is a close second by also growing beyond expectations. In Los Cabos we now have a 20 mile long tourist corridor that connects Cabo San Lucas with San Jose, all filled in with development.

Here in Cabo, as in most of Fonatur’s territory, developers have long since taken over from them. Probably the most successful has been Eduardo Sanchez Navarro who bought up several large tracts of land, divided it into smaller pieces, and sold those chunks to even smaller developers who built hotels and enclaves of residences. The secondary tier of developers, those who bought from Fonatur, are the ones who created the gated communities we see today.

The same year the Baja road was opened was the year the marina was dredged from a dirt airstrip. Almost a year later the sand had been dredged enough to permit the first arrival of a ferryboat from Puerto Vallarta. A lot more dredging had to be done for the actual marina's size to be achieved, and, they stopped short, not making it a deep water port for the cruise ships to come in. We lose a lot of tourists who stay on the big ships rather than hassle the tenders ferrying them in. Now it’s too late, there are too many financial interests owning the land along the coast who don’t want a 15 story hotel to pull up in front of them.

In the beginning, besides avid fishermen only surfers and a few snowbirds came to Los Cabos through this highway. But in 1984 the first international airport in the area was built by Fonatur, (who no longer owns it.) And not long after, a great number of world class hotel chains became involved in the development of the fishing town in the middle of the desert.

Fonatur even built our first golf course, which we old timers still call the Fonatur course. It’s only nine so-so holes, designed by Joe Finger, a name of sorts in his day, and it is now owned by the Mayan Palace time share. All the other 14 local courses are far superior, and are a full 18. But still, in its day, this pioneer golf course was quite adequate.

Fonatur has had to reinvent itself now that their job of starting new tourist areas is done. They still take care of much of the original infrastructure like the original sewage treatment plants. You see the name Fonatur stamped on some sidewalks they recently remodeled, and they care for the main drag in downtown Cabo because that’s part of the marina they originally owned.

About 10 years ago Fonatur tried to sell off bits and pieces of left over land they still owned, but the auction was so poorly organized, nobody could participate, although there were plenty of people interested. Around that same time the city of San Jose sued Fonatur for back taxes on land they owned.

Fonatur has had a checkered history, not always doing the best job, and this paper has called them the gang that can’t shoot straight, but the fact is, without Fonatur we may not be here. Certainly not in our current state, anyway.