Hours from the nearest beach, Mexico's Sierra Madre Mountains seem like an unlikely spot for a major tourist resort. But here, amid the spectacular vistas of Copper Canyon and the rustic caves of the Tarahumara Indians, Mexican federal and state officials hope to create the biggest visitor attraction since Cancn.
They are seeking upwards of $500 million in combined Mexican and foreign investment to upgrade roads, sewers, and infrastructure along a 300-mile rail route that links the Pacific Coast to this mountainous region in Chihuahua state. About 4,000 new hotel rooms, camping lots for mobile-home trailers, an airport for small charter flights, and new visitor centers are on the drawing board.
Mexico, like many developing nations, sees tourism playing an important role in its future economic development. Late last year, President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Len highlighted the industry by kicking off the Alliance for Tourism, a public-private partnership.
Yet today's planners find a far different political climate from the past, when Mexican presidents and international tycoons such as J. Paul Getty blasted highways and turned beaches upside down to erect sunny monuments to pleasure.
Despite an economic crisis, promises of jobs and prosperity are not always enough to sway local support. After decades of large-scale development that has sometimes reaped disasters such as the pollution of Acapulco Bay, more Mexicans are wary of outsiders bearing big ideas and bulging pocketbooks.
Across the country, grass-roots groups are demanding consideration for the environment, respect for indigenous rights, and local ownership of tourist enterprises. Last month, for example, plans for a golf course and condominium complex in the small town of Tepotztlan, near Mexico City, were squashed after one protester was killed in a standoff with police. In Guerrero, residents rebelled against a concession awarded to a Canadian businessman to operate the popular Cacahuamilpa caves. And on the turquoise coast of Quintana Roo, the planned construction of a pier raised objections of possible ecological damage to Cancn's coral reef.
Even in the palm-shaded vacation standbys of Acapulco and Ixtapa-Zihuatenajo, a debate is breaking out over the nature of tourism, spurred on by a proposal to legalize hotel casino gambling. Amid the towering edifices of Ixtapa's multinational hotel chains and the luxury lots of private villas, some of Zihuatenajo's natives are rethinking the package-tourism model marketed to affluent vacationers.
Silvestre Pachecho, director of Zihuatenajo's biweekly independent magazine Costa Libre, says many townspeople view a low-budget, European-style tourism as more suitable to their needs. Contending that the profits from Ixtapa's hotels are siphoned out of the town. Mr. Pachecho says many locals prefer a system that supports small family-owned lodgings and restaurants. "The benefits from tourism can be invested in the rural sector to generate employment and production," he says.
And here, near Mexico's version of the Grand Canyon, members of the Tarahumara tribe, who have become tour operators instead of tour employees, voice similar concerns.
Residents of the San Ignacio de Arareko EcoTourist Project say they weren't involved in the initial discussions about development plans. They remain skeptical of big government involvement, whether state or federal.
The new mood in Mexico's tourist country is not lost on government authorities. Rodolfo Perez, head of border and social tourism for the Mexican federal tourist agency SECTUR, insists the government will protect the environment while consulting indigenous and Mestizo (mixed-race) residents. He cites a proposal under consideration by several federal agencies to declare a section of Chihuahua a biosphere reserve.
"This [development] isn't being imposed by the federal government," he adds. "It's being done by the government of Chihuahua" with federal support.