Saturday, December 12, 2009

Beach Buzz: The Simplicity of Sun, Sea and Sand

-by La Huerita

I've been contemplating The Gypsy's latest column (Puerto Penasco's Identity Crisis) and the responses to it. That contemplation led me further afield to all the hype accompanying the real estate bubble that recently burst, leaving turmoil and uncertainty in its wake.

The thing that annoyed me the most about all the hype was the constant comparison of Rocky Point to Cancun and Los Cabos. All the realtors and developers were doing it, and the comparison is still showing up on various Web sites even now. "Rocky Point is a rapidly growing city known as the next Cancun in Mexico!" they breathlessly avowed. Or "Many hail Rocky Point as Mexico's next Cabo". Someone even referred to it in print as "The next San Diego" (I kid you not).

I guess they were referring to the amazing development of those locations, but it was and is a poor comparison, in my opinion. Except for the fact that all three cities are located in Mexico there isn't really much similarity, and that includes the way they developed. When it comes to geography and the physical appearance of the three resort cities, there is simply no comparison at all.

But if you want to compare Penasco to some other resort area, there is another place that bears a much more realistic resemblance and it wouldn't hurt to take a look at that place. You'll have to look halfway around the world for it, though, on the Red Sea at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula between the Gulf of Suez and gulf of Aqaba.

I refer to the internationally famous city named Sharm el-Sheikh (pronounced Sharm el Shake), in Egypt. You can get the basics of the place from Wikipedia, but let me explain why "Sharm" (as it is affectionately called) is a better comparison to Rocky Point than either Cancun or Los Cabos.

The most obvious similarity is the geography and physical appearance. Both are set next to the ocean in wide expanses of barren desert. There is not much that is naturally green, no tropical ambiance, no lovely oasis or softness. Both are lands where the phrase "the sun's anvil" comes to mind. In both cases, it was their proximity to the ocean that made them valuable. Without that proximity, it's unlikely that either city would exist today.

Both Sharm and Penasco were originally nothing more than occasional bases of operations for fishermen, who finally settled on and below promontories overlooking bays with natural harbors (See images, Penasco left; Sharm top right). Both had military significance at one point in their lives (Sharm to a greater degree than Penasco). In both cases, tourism eventually supplanted the original industries native to the areas.

The cities are of approximate size (Sharm at 35,000, Penasco at 45,000). Both developed resort areas to the north and south of the original towns. Both share environmental concerns common to desert areas, including water issues (but environmental laws introduced to Sharm in the 1990s are strictly enforced. For instance, environmental zoning laws currently limit the height of buildings in Sharm el-Sheikh so as to avoid obscuring the natural beauty of the surroundings. I personally think Puerto Penasco would do well to consider that option...)

Sharm started to develop around the mid-90s as a laid back haven for diving, backpacking and partying. Penasco's tourism development began in earnest around the same time, as a laid back haven for fishing, diving and partying. In fact, both cities have a reputation as good places to party (Sharm could easily lay claim to being the "club capital" of the Middle East and Africa).

In both cases, tourism originally consisted mostly of those from nearby areas, in Sharm's case from Cairo, in Penasco's case from Arizona. Sharm became an international destination when its international airport became fully operational and there were enough hotel rooms to fill planes full of sun worshipers from abroad. Penasco hopes for the same result from its new international airport.

As recently as a decade ago, pictures of the "old town" showed Sharm as not particularly lovely, a dusty collection of buildings on mostly unpaved roads set around a waterfront. This is a visual that mirrors Penasco today. However, Sharm has outpaced Penasco in development, being full of resorts such as Hyatt Regency, Accor, Marriott, Le Méridien, Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, and others, with categories from three to five stars. A fully developed destination, Sharm el-Sheikh today is known as The City of Peace, referring to the large number of international peace conferences that have been held there. Penasco, on the other hand, developed condos first and is just now beginning to see major hotel brand development on the horizon. We have a ways to go in that regard.

And there's another similarity, as expressed by Nadine al Sayed in Eygpt Today:

Just as any musician who records a boldly original new album is bound to hear “I like your old stuff better than your new stuff” coming from the mouths of many a fan, so too does Sharm El-Sheikh now have many former fans who no longer view the place as the demi-paradise that it once was. As Marcel Proust once said, “The only paradise is paradise lost” — and the addition of vast crowds and big dollar development means that for those on a budget, or those seeking simplicity and serenity, Sharm El-Sheikh is now more Las Vegas than Goa — and the boom of Dahab is largely based on these types migrating northward in search of what once was.

The same thing is already happening in Penasco, with "old timers" bemoaning the ruination of the town and beginning to look further afield for "what used to be".

Still, the SharmGuide describes Sharm el-Sheikh this way: "The simplicity of sun, sea and sand". I think that's a perfect description of what Puerto Penasco is now and could remain if things are done right.

Developers and Rocky Point's civic authorities could learn a lot from studying the development of Sharm el-Sheikh...

And that's all the Buzz on the Beach for today.

Peace out...

About Beach Buzz: Not necessarily the news, this is a place for information, opinion, speculation, gossip, tips and other good stuff about Rocky Point, and Mexico in general. Have opinions to air, anecdotes to share, tips or tidbits to contribute? I'd like to hear from you!

Email me: La Huerita
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. -Mark Twain