Riviera Nayarit forging own identity on Pacific coast

By Laura Del Rosso

Riviera Nayarit mapDevelopment continues along the Riviera Nayarit, Mexico's newest resort destination, although the economic recession and downturn in Mexico tourism have halted some construction and caused other plans to be shelved.

A spate of openings in 2008 added four major hotels: the St. Regis Punta Mita, Villa La Estancia, Dreams Villa Magna and the Riu Palace Pacifico.

This September, Imanta Resorts opened a boutique hotel at the exclusive Punta Mita enclave.

In the coming months, the Riviera Nayarit is preparing for more resorts and championship-caliber golf courses.

In December, the 171-room Marival Residences and World Spa is scheduled for a soft opening in Riviera Nayarit's Nuevo Vallarta area just north of Puerto Vallarta Airport.

Adding to the Riviera Nayarit's growing reputation as a premier golf destination, the Jack Nicklaus-designed course Bahia Punta Mita makes its debut Nov. 16 in Punta Mita, which already offers one Jack Nicklaus course, Pacifico Punta Mita.

That course is known for its signature hole, 3B, on a tiny island 194 yards offshore.

At low tide, duffers use a pathway through shallow waters to reach the hole. As the tide moves in, course staffers shuttle golfers in an amphibious golf cart.

Nearby, the recently completed residential development Porta Fortuna (www.luxurypuntamita.com), in the same gated community as the Four Seasons and St. Regis, started a villa rental program that includes all-inclusive packages for clients, who can choose activities and amenities such as private chef services on an a la carte basis.

Another Jack Nicklaus-designed course is scheduled to open in February, this one in Nuevo Vallarta at the Mayan Palace resort, which is closed for major renovations and expected to reopen in November 2010.

However, the downturn in tourism has taken its toll in this area as it has in the rest of Mexico.

Construction has been halted on Ibero-star's first venture on Mexico's Pacific Coast, in Litibu, just north of Punta Mita.

The 400-plus room Iberostar Playa Mita Beach resort at Litibu was originally planned to open this winter. About 35% of the resort is complete -- several stories of the hotel's two buildings overlook the Pacific -- but construction was stopped because of worsening economic conditions.

"Demand is not strong right now," said John Long, Iberostar vice president of sales and marketing for North America. "We're a family-owned business and privately owned. It's not a matter of investors or our financial situation. We've opened hotels this year in Brazil, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. It's just that the timing is not right now for Mexico."

Spain-based Iberostar hopes to restart Litibu construction in the next year so that the Playa Mita hotel could be completed by November 2011, in time for the peak winter 2011-2012 season, Long said.

The resort is being built between two beachfront holes of a Greg Norman-designed championship golf course at Litibu, an area selected for development years ago by Fonatur, the Mexican government tourism agency.

Construction on that course is complete, but no inaugural date has been set, according to the Riviera Nayarit Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Iberostar's plans for Litibu involve two more resorts: the 300-room Iberostar Playa Mita All-Suites and a luxury Iberostar Grand Resort of 200 to 300 rooms. Once economic conditions improve, construction is expected to start on those two neighboring properties, Long said.

All this activity comes just two years into a marketing push that introduced the Riviera Nayarit, an area defined as the 192-mile stretch of coastline along the state of Nayarit just north of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico's Pacific coast.

Nayarit state officials launched the marketing and branding effort to make the coast of Nayarit distinct from Puerto Vallarta, which lies in the state of Jalisco.

Nayarit officials determined several years ago that its coastline would be developed differently from its famous neighbor, with an eye to protect natural resources (endangered turtle nesting grounds dot the shores) and limit construction to relatively small-size, low-rise resorts of nine floors or less, said Richard Zarkin, spokesman for the Riviera Nayarit CVB.

The bureau, which operates on a $4 million budget derived from a local lodging tax, hired a marketing firm that suggested the Riviera Nayarit rebranding to differentiate the area from Puerto Vallarta. The subsequent marketing, public relations, advertising and trade campaign has made great strides, particularly in familiarizing travel agents, he said.

"Seventy-two percent of travel agents in the U.S. know Riviera Nayarit," said Zarkin. "They are saying that in three years we've built the kind of brand that took Puerto Vallarta 15 years to build."

However, the rebranding of the Riviera Nayarit has not been without its challenges. The state's coast covers vastly diverse areas, some built up and some isolated and undeveloped, which can make it complicated to describe the region.

Punta MitaThe areas include the developed area of Nuevo Vallarta just north of Puerto Vallarta Airport; the beach towns of Flamingos, Bucerias and La Cruz de Huanacaxtle along the highway north that follows Banderas Bay; Punta Mita, which juts into the Pacific and is home to Four Seasons and St. Regis properties; north of Punta Mita, the more isolated resort area of Litibu; Sayulita and San Francisco (also known as San Pancho), two surfing towns with large American expat communities; and a string of even more remote small towns along a coast of rocky coves and mangroves north to the port town of San Blas and the border with the northern state of Sinaloa.

The area is already attracting a growing percentage, now 62%, of passengers who fly into Puerto Vallarta, Zarkin said.

The opening of the St. Regis, the brand's first hotel in Latin America, did much to draw attention to the Riviera Nayarit's Punta Mita, he said.

More luxury brands are expected to follow: Among the hotel companies with plans to build on the Riviera Nayarit are Ritz-Carlton, which is eyeing Punta Mita, and Park Hyatt, which has tentative plans at another Fonatur development, El Capomo, about a half-hour drive north of Punta Mita. However, there are no firm dates set for groundbreaking, Zarkin said.

The state is also expanding beyond traditional leisure markets to target boaters and yachtsmen. In 2008, it completed the Marina Riviera Nayarit in the fishing village of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. The 400-slip marina accommodates yachts of up to 400 feet.

The one market that Riviera Nayarit probably won't target is large meetings and conventions. Puerto Vallarta has a convention center, and Riviera Nayarit is happy to work with its neighboring destination to house delegates, but there are no plans for a convention facility in the state, he said.

Visit www.rivieranayarit.com.

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