The invitation wasn't unexpected, but the timing was.
Two weeks and three days after the Sept. 15 storm that stranded more than 25,000 travelers for two days in Acapulco, Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete, the CEO of the Mexico Tourist Board, asked if I would come to Acapulco as soon as possible to see the situation firsthand. He wanted to get the word out that the resort area as well as Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, farther up the Pacific coast, were open for business.
I responded that I thought it probably would be better to wait. In the past, when hurricanes hit Caribbean islands or Cancun, hoteliers took the opportunity not only to repair but to improve properties, and I couldn't imagine enough time had passed for that to have occurred.
Indeed, there are many who share the opinion that Acapulco has long been in need of improvements. Shortly after the storm, Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., Eduardo Medina Mora, told me, "This could be a chance to refresh Acapulco, which was, one has to admit, tired."
And, even if Acapulco were fully recovered today -- or next month, or next year -- would it really matter to Travel Weekly's readers or their clients?
Although Acapulco was once synonymous with a Mexican beach vacation for U.S. travelers, today 90% of its visitors are domestic. It functions primarily as Mexico City's weekend beach getaway. The majority of those stranded tourists were not distressed because the airport was cut off by flooding but because the road back to the capital had been inundated.
There is more to the story, Lopez-Negrete insisted. Come and see.
And so, last week, I went.
Yes, a fast recovery
To Lopez-Negrete's point and my surprise, the recovery was 99% complete. I surveyed the area by air and land. From the Diamante to the Gold to the Traditional Zone, I witnessed scant evidence of the storm.
The Turtle Dunes Country Club golf course is closed (the storm left a few additional water hazards, and damage to its stone fence has yet to be repaired), and on rare occasions, my car was slowed because a lane still had standing water.
The airport has benefited from a fresh coat of paint and a bit of polish; there are no lingering odors or visual evidence that it was under almost 3 feet of water a month ago.
In Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, the only damage to tourist amenities was that the Ixtapa bike path had been submerged. It reopened quickly.
The Banyan Tree in Acapulco and the Capella in Ixtapa, where I stayed, and Acapulco Princess, which I visited, showed zero evidence of storm damage.
I was told there are still villages in the state of Guerrero that are isolated and suffering as a result of the storm, but as regards tourist areas, unless you were planning on golfing at Turtle Dunes, there is no reason to consider canceling a visit to Acapulco.
Still, who among Travel Weekly's readers is dealing with possible client cancellations?
For Mexicans, Acapulco's attractiveness has a strong emotional element. It benefits greatly from being the closest beach resort to the capital, and its long standing as a family weekend getaway helps maintain a special status in the hearts of Mexicans, even among young adults. They went there as kids and now crowd the Palladium, Baby-O and other nightclubs every weekend.
"Nostalgia is perhaps its greatest strength," said Jesus Catalan, 31, of the Mexican Tourist Board, one of my escorts on the trip.
Catalan is assigned to promote the central region of the country, but he said he felt lucky to be asked to accompany me to Acapulco, which he referred to as "so Mexico, classic Mexico, real Mexico."
In part, he was contrasting it with the newer, planned beach resorts, but he was also explaining why Mexicans are so attached to it.
"It is where Mexicans had their first dance, their first drink, their first kiss." He smiled. "Other firsts."
The destination last year launched a "Remember Acapulco" promotional campaign. The phrase echoes the title of a famous song and is designed both to tap personal memory and to request support for the destination in the wake of the storm.
Catalan feels the sentiment is right for the moment. Yes, memory is important, he believes. And so is the future. Once the destination recovers from the post-storm drop in visitors, "Eternal Acapulco" is a phrase he feels would resonate.
After spending two days there, I began to see how Acapulco, in its current state, could be attractive to many more U.S. visitors and could evolve to become, once again, a competitive international destination.
The beauty of its bays and cliffs are indeed eternal. But what remains untapped -- at least for potential visitors who don't speak Spanish -- is a connection to the "real Mexico" of which Catalan spoke.
There is a significant subset of Americans who like to lie on a beach but also seek a level of authenticity that a planned beach resort can't provide. But Acapulco's classic attractions -- glass bottom boats, cliff divers and drinking from a coconut on the beach -- are not going to satisfy them either.
Yet other, currently obscure attractions might. On Inalambrica, a winding side street in the Caleta neighborhood, La Casa de los Vientos, a studio once used by Diego Rivera, opened to the public this month. It is fronted by an enormous, colorful, three-dimensional mural depicting both the artist and his patron Dolores Olmedo as mythological creatures among other Aztec gods.
The state and federal government -- and telecom billionaire Carlos Slim -- bought the property in May and began converting it to a proper museum.
I'm a big fan of Rivera's art, and it did not disappoint. There's a fascinating mural above a wrap-around porch and an enormous work on the ceiling of the studio itself, which is now an exhibition space.
The classic, the authentic
Also in Caleta, on a small, sandy bay, sits the Boca Chica, a 36-room boutique hotel that's a perfect blend of 2013 and 1953, the year it was built. It plays off Acapulco's glamour years with good-natured irony while infusing the rooms with modern sensibility.
Acapulco does not lack for good restaurants, but to taste a typical -- and atypically delicious -- regional specialty, I was taken about 20 miles out of town and down some very unpromising, unpaved streets to Alejo, a restaurant on Barra Vieja beach.
It's a popular weekend destination for Acapulco residents, and it was a scene. There was seating for hundreds, including tables on the beach, a large swimming pool and strolling mariachis. Its big draw is pescado a la tallar (roughly, "fish of the size") The diner denotes the size of fish desired by the distance of parted hands, after which one of that size is butterflied, smothered in guajillo chili and grilled over coals. It's stunningly good.
My dining companion was Victor Sotomayor, president of the Acapulco International Film Festival. In its ninth year, it draws major movies and big stars, and Sotomayor has a great deal of fun with it, showing, for example, horror films in a cave half a mile underground.
Everyone I met was, to some extent, an optimist and a dreamer, aware of Acapulco's challenges but anticipating a very bright future. And it's a future that includes U.S. visitors.
That morning, I had been introduced to Seyed Rezvani, general director of Mundo Imperial, who is putting the finishing touches on a Las Vegas-style theater/convention center/hotel complex, and who hopes to get a casino license. He had a confident, positive outlook for the city.
Enter the contrarian
Thomas Becker, the German director general of the Princess and two other Fairmont-managed properties, is a self-described outsider. And while he certainly sees a bright future for his properties, he also points to challenges faced by the destination as a whole.
"When we hit bottom in August 2011 [as a result of narco-trafficking violence], I made the decision to ignore the U.S.," he said. "It's irrelevant. There's nothing I can do about airlift or getting Americans to come back, so we aggressively focused on the Mexico City market and rebounded.
"In February 2012, the Princess and [sister property] Pierre Marques were the two worst-performing Fairmont hotels among 56. In September of this year, we were No. 1 and No. 2."
But he offered a harsh assessment of some of his peers.
"At the height of the 2011 crisis, I called a meeting with other hoteliers," he recalled. "I was the only one freaking out. There was no urgency to change, no acknowledgement that things weren't working. The response was, 'Acapulco will always be Acapulco.' What does that mean?"
The solution, he suggested, is not rocket science.
"We have to be our own demand driver," he said. "I understand what makes this destination click. [Visitors] want to have a good time. You can make it as complicated as you like, but people just want to dance."
He plans a huge beach party for every long holiday weekend, he said, and he doesn't really concern himself with what others do.
When I arrived in Acapulco, I looked at it as a destination challenged by the media-fueled perception that it had been devastated, when in fact it was up and running. In that respect, I saw a parallel to what had happened in New Orleans after Katrina, and I spoke with my hosts about tactics that city had used, not only to turn the situation around but to create new opportunities that have lifted it above its pre-Katrina status.
But by the time I left, I had come to see Acapulco's present situation as being analogous to a different city's experience. Twenty years ago, South Beach was an unappealing mix of old-folks homes and drug addicts, and Miami Beach was irrelevant. It appeared that a once-sparkling brand had slipped beneath redemption.
Today, Acapulco's renewal projects include repairing roads, installing sidewalks and replacing buses. But if the destination really wants to draw an international crowd, it would need to follow South Beach/Miami Beach's lead and do, on a large scale, what Boca Chica Hotel has done small: Embrace its glamorous past in a contemporary way.
I had a great time in Acapulco, and in a very brief look at the situation identified key ingredients that could be enhanced and successfully packaged to appeal to U.S. travelers. Many of the pieces are already there.
But a big difference between Acapulco and Miami -- and one that will make such a transition difficult -- is that Acapulco has, and likely will continue to have, enough domestic business to maintain the status quo, which seems acceptable to many.
Unfortunately, "Acapulco will always be Acapulco" is not a path to "Eternal Acapulco."
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.