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Acapulco Fears Post-Pauline Effects

October 13, 1997

ACAPULCO, Mexico (AP) _ Losing even one tourist hurts.

Just ask Geraldo Santillan, who stood atop Acapulco’s seaside cliffs, ready to plunge 100 feet into the ocean abyss still churning perilously with the debris of Hurricane Pauline.

His arms outstretched, the cliffdiver vaulted and vanished into the storm-tossed chasm at La Quebrada _ his feat rewarded by a smattering of applause from the handful of tourists who plunked down dlrs 1.25 each.

``The show must go on,″ said Santillan, 39, who returned to the job Sunday night _ one of several divers who earn their keep by jumping for the tourists. ``You have to make a living.″

Battered by a hurricane that claimed more than 200 lives, Mexico’s most famous resort is struggling to dig out from under tons of mud that badly damaged Acapulco’s already faded luster.

Once glitzy, ritzy and awash with Hollywood stars, Acapulco’s debacle is an enormous setback for a beach town that has seen trendier, newer resorts siphon off business _ long before Pauline set the streets swirling with muck.

Much is at stake as Acapulco seeks to recover from Pauline: Tourism is the lifeblood of this Pacific coast city of more than 1 million, and Mexico’s biggest source of income next to oil.

About 5 million people visited Acapulco last year, spending $1.2 billion _ down from $1.36 billion in 1994. About 70 percent of the visitors were Mexican.

Officials now fear publicity about Pauline’s two-day, 100-mph tantrum last week will send foreigners packing for other climes _ just when the peak winter tourism season is approaching.

Most of the storm deaths occurred in poor hillside neighborhoods beyond sight of Acapulco’s overdeveloped strip of hotels, souvenir shops and seaside discos _ where many tourists slept unaware last Thursday as bodies rushed down raging torrents to the sea.

``Unfortunately, we lost lives,″ said Guerrero state’s tourism secretary, Miguel Guajardo. ``But the hotel strip suffered no damage. The only problem we have there is cleaning up.″

Acapulco today is a far cry from its Hollywood heyday, when the West Coast elite discovered a sleepy fishing village of 2,500 people set against a backdrop of lush green hills worthy of any movie set.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Acapulco was a secluded and glamorous getaway for the stars, who in pre-paparazzi times, felt safe conducting their flings and follies away from the prying public.

Tyrone Power wooed Lana Turner in Acapulco, and Errol Flynn brought Nora Eddington, whom he later married. Acapulco was the port of choice for yachtsmen like Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, John Ford and Dick Powell.

And there were movies: 1947′s ``The Lady from Shanghai″ with Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth; ``Fun In Acapulco,″ with Elvis Presley _ beach romps of the kind that had Elvis crooning ``You Can’t Say `No’ in Acapulco.″

Quickly, American tourists found in Acapulco an exotic _ and inexpensive _ honeymoon, a place to hobnob with the stars at trendy Las Brisas hotels, or to foxtrot the night away _ under the stars and beside an unpolluted bay.

``It meant you had arrived as far as the sophisticated traveler. People wanted to serve you and please you as a tourists,″ recalled Carol Trager, a tour operator with Boston-based Vantage Travel who vacationed often in Acapulco in the 1960s. ``It was an exciting time.″

But Acapulco became a victim of its own success.

Dozens of hotels sprang up, blocking the breathtaking views of a crescent bay that is now dirty. Urban blight spread up the hills as tens of thousands of job seekers moved in from dirt-poor villages further inland.

And now there are many newer mega-resorts to compete with: the Pacific’s Cabo San Lucas, Ixtapa-Zihuatenejo, Huatulco; the Caribbean’s Cancun and Cozumel.

Today, Trager complained, tourists sunning on Acapulco’s beach are pestered by vendors hawking trinkets or time-share condos. Neon signs, U.S. fast food, Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe compete for tourist dollars.

What may be a spoiled paradise for some is a lifeline for many.

Salvador Blanco, 36, is one of dozens of people who make their living handing out hotel brochures. His tarpaper house was flooded by Pauline, and he says a fast recovery is essential.

``They need to clean up the tourist zone because if they don’t there will be no work,″ Blanco said.

Mexico’s $6 billion tourism industry has rebounded from killer storms before. In 1988, Hurricane Gilbert socked Cancun and Cozumel for $86 million in damage. Today, Cancun is Mexico’s busiest resort.

President Ernesto Zedillo has vowed to rebuild Acapulco and urged Mexicans to help the government do it. Workers already are taking shovels and bulldozers to the tons of mud that washed down to the beachfront.

``If you, Mexicans, want to help the people of Acapulco, go to Acapulco for your vacations,″ he said.

Mexicans _ who crowd Acapulco each year at Easter time and summer vacation _ have responded overwhelmingly, donating more than 200 tons of food, medicines and clothing.

Guajardo, the tourism secretary, says Zedillo has approved government assistance to refurbish Acapulco’s older hotels. Officials, meanwhile, are trying to lure more conventions as well as golf, tennis and boxing events.

Many residents share that hope.

``Nothing can rival this,″ said Lidio Diaz, a bellhop who has worked for 35 years at the Las Brisas Hotel. Pointing to Acapulco’s crescent bay, he added, ``All we need is a little bit of promotion.″

Chris Privett, spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents in suburban Washington, D.C., said its 27,000 member agencies have reported no mass cancellations.

He said other resorts have bounced back after hurricanes, usually on package and cruise line promotions. ``Travelers tend to have a short memory when they have really great deals sitting in front of them.″