Rocky Point cruise-ship port gets a new lifeline

PUERTO PEÑASCO, Mexico — On the edge of Sandy Beach, at the base of the rocky formation that gave this city its name, a breakwater dock juts more than 700 yards into the Gulf of California.

Signs near the dock, far from the resorts popular with Arizona visitors, warn of impending construction. But a rusted fence to keep people off the dock tells a different story.

On most days, a few people can be found on the unfinished dock passing the time or fishing for the day’s meal.

“Over there, you’ll get to the corals, and that’s where you get the fish,” Jose Luis Ramirez said one recent day week as he approached the dock.

Sonora state and local officials hope to soon write a different ending, making the dock a home port for cruise ships.

After being on hold for nearly two years, amid questions over millions of dollars in spending, construction is set to resume in this beach resort town better known north of the border as Rocky Point.

Sonora officials announced Friday that the Mexican federal government has set aside more than $13 million in its 2018 budget to finish the first phase of the port project, with completion scheduled for 2020.

In making the announcement, Sonora tourism officials revealed routes for ships cruising in the Gulf of California and said at least one cruise line had expressed interest in establishing operations there.

“The hotel infrastructure is magnificent. We offer great service here,” Sonora Gov. Claudia Pavlovich told The Arizona Republic during the annual meeting for the Arizona-Mexico Commission here. “The only thing that’s missing is a port where cruise ships can dock. We had already started, but the funds were misspent.”

Arizona influence

Sonora officials said they would not have secured the federal funding without help from Arizona. At a commission meeting earlier this year in Scottsdale, the governors of Sonora and Arizona signed a memorandum of understanding to promote and lobby for completion of the cruise-ship port.

That show of unity helped as Sonora officials pressed the Mexican government to take action. 

“It … had a great deal of influence that Gov. (Doug) Ducey and I signed that agreement to say we’re all in agreement about getting this project done,” Pavlovich said.

Elected and businesses leaders expect the project will generate millions of dollars in economic activity on both sides of the border.

Arizona residents make up a large share of visitors to Rocky Point, which is located approximately one hour south of the U.S.-Mexico border. And once the port is complete, they’re expected to be a substantial source of cruise passengers.

Officials said they also foresee Arizona-based companies becoming the main suppliers of goods used on board the cruise ships.

Ducey said the cruise-port effort is a testament to the strengthening ties between the neighboring states.

“It’s gone from a relationship, to a partnership, to a real friendship …,” the Republican governor said. “Whether it’s the port industry that we’re going to bring to Rocky Point, or (electric car maker) Lucid Motors, which we’re going to bring to Pinal County and Casa Grande.”

Misspent funds stall construction

Despite Mexico’s setting aside millions for the port, there’s little to show for it. Workers are only half done with the first of three phases, and the project has been beset with spending issues and mismanagement.

In 2013, the Mexican government allotted more than $26 million to begin construction. Workers built the dock before running out of money two years ago.

There’s been such little progress in recent years that nearby businesses and residents wondered if the project had been abandoned altogether.

Pavlovich blames the previous administration for the misspent funds. Her predecessor is in a Mexican prison facing corruption, extortion and embezzlement charges unrelated to the port.

By the time she took office, work on the cruise port had already come to a halt.

“We had to take on many legal issues and redo many things that weren’t our responsibility,” Pavlovich said. “But we had to do it so that in the end we could once again secure the funding. And we hope that we keep getting more, because we need more (funding) to be able to finish.”

The state’s tourism office said the $13 million secured for 2018 will be enough to finish building the dock. Officials, meanwhile, will continue pressing Mexico’s federal government to allocate additional funding to finish the final two phases at an estimated cost of $80.5 million.

Challenges ahead for tourism

Even with completion of the port several years away, tourism officials are already working to address the challenges that would come with cruise-bound visitors.

In recent years, the number of visitors in Puerto Peñasco has increased steadily. The arrival of thousands more tourists for cruises could strain infrastructure and cause headaches for U.S. visitors hoping to make a quick weekend getaway.

As the closest beach to most Arizona cities, Rocky Point has relied on these visitors to fill hotels and frequent local shops and restaurants.

The number of visitors hit 2.2 million last year, according to statistics from the Puerto Peñasco Convention and Visitors Bureau. A majority come from the United States — the lion’s share of visiting Americans are from Arizona.

Hector Vasquez del Mercado, who chairs the bureau, said he attributes the rise in tourism to a rebound in the U.S. economy after the Great Recession and a greater focus on public safety on the Mexico side of the border.

“No matter how well the economy over there is doing, if there are safety concerns here, obviously, tourists wouldn’t come,” he said.

Success could become a double-edged sword, especially in the busy spring and summer seasons, when resort occupancy is the highest.

It’s not unusual for hotels to sell out on the busiest holiday weekends. Having thousands more people arriving or departing from the city on cruise ships could make it harder to book a hotel.

That’s one of the issues state and local leaders need to resolve.

“The large majority, some 70 percent of the beds available in Puerto Peñasco … are beachfront condos,” he said. “We have few hotels on the beach. There are very few international hotels, so I think that’s the next step.”

The state tourism office said they are in talks with several hotel companies, as well as airlines to bring air service to the area.

Cruise routes set

State tourism officials have finalized the route that cruise ships would take along the Gulf of California, using Puerto Peñasco as their home base.

The route would include up to eight cities in three Mexican states:

  • Puerto Peñasco, Sonora
  • Guaymas, Sonora
  • Topolobampo, Sinaloa
  • Mazatlan, Sinaloa
  • Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur
  • La Paz, Baja California Sur
  • Loreto, Baja California Sur
  • Santa Rosalia, Baja California Sur

Hector Platt Mazon, the state tourism director, said they based the route on existing infrastructure in cities that could accommodate large cruise ships in their ports.

“Obviously, this route can grow,” he said. “We’re not ruling out that new ports could be built to create new, different routes and new experiences for cruise tourists.”

In the past few months, the state also secured a letter of intent from U.K.-based Cruise and Maritime Voyages. They operate several cruise liners around the globe, including the Caribbean. 

The letter is not a binding contract, but rather an expression of interest in the home port.

“The cruise line said they would be ready to get their boats on the water by the end of 2019, which would be great for us,” Platt Mazon said.

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