Special to the Chronicle
CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico — The only jackpot tourists can hit here is the 2-for-1 specials bars advertise in a desperate attempt to attract more business.
Cabo San Lucas is no longer filled with the tequila slammers and bikini watchers who once crowded its beaches. Diners chow down on jumbo shrimp in restaurants where the wait staff outnumbers customers.
Van Halen sang, “If you go there once, you’ll be there twice,” in its song about Cabo San Lucas, but these days not enough tourists are returning to this sunbathing paradise by day, party town by night.
Now, many Mexicans are betting legalized gambling could pump life back into the tourist trade.
In Los Cabos — the area stretching from Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo on the tip of the state of Baja California Sur — hotel occupancy was down to 57.1 percent in July, compared with 65.3 percent a year earlier.
Like most Mexican resorts it has seen visits drop since the terrorist attacks last year. A double whammy came in the form of Hurricane Juliette in September 2001.
The gambling issue has been around for years, but lawmakers say this year’s downturn may ensure it passes, giving up to a 90 percent probability that a bill legalizing Togel Hongkong gambling will pass before year’s end.
“We don’t see it as a panacea to resolve all the economic problems in Mexico,” said Jaime Mantecon, a federal legislator who heads up the Chamber of Deputies committee that is negotiating the terms of a bill to legalize gambling, which he says has a strong chance of passing.
However, he said, gambling could bring more tourists back to Mexico’s beaches and border towns, the places most likely to attract the casinos.
But passage is hardly a sure thing. Although there’s widespread concern about the drop in tourism — one of the top sources of income for Mexico — the bill faces opposition both from religious groups who oppose it on moral grounds and tourism business owners who fear competition from big gambling operations.
Backers point out the Mexican government needs the revenue after struggling through a global recession that drove down both the tourism industry and its exports — another top source of cash.
By legalizing gambling, it could collect much-needed taxes from the more than 2,500 clandestine operations where people play poker or one-armed bandits, said David Sotelo, a legislator from Acapulco, which would be an obvious location for a casino.
The Mexican government outlawed roulette wheels, slot machines and most forms of gambling back in 1947. More than a decade before that, President Lazaro Cardenas banned casinos in Mexico, where many American mobsters and Hollywood stars and starlets had flocked during Prohibition in search of gambling and cheap booze.
Today, betting is only allowed at horse and dog tracks and at some sporting events.
The Mexican Association of Hotels and Motels figures an initial expense of $1.8 billion on 10 casinos in beachside towns like this one could reap $3 billion a year and create 115,000 jobs.
“Mexico needs to be creating jobs, and they’re very good in the tourism industry,” said James Jones, co-chairman of Manatt Jones Global Strategies in Washington, D.C., and former ambassador to Mexico.
Last February, Jones gave a speech at the American Gaming Summit at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. Back then, he gave odds of 70 percent that Mexican lawmakers would pass a law to regulate gambling. Jones has since upped his bet to as much as 90 percent.
He’s heard talk about the Mexican government legalizing gambling for years, but this is the closest Congress has ever come to voting on it, said Jones. He is working as a consultant for Sol Kerzner, a South African businessman who already owns casinos. He recently acquired a 50 percent stake in the luxurious Palmilla Resort in the Los Cabos area.
Indeed, Mantecon said he believes Chamber of Deputies has as much as a 90 percent consensus on the bill.
But the Catholic Church has circulated letters to politicians expressing opposition to these so-called dens of iniquity, and many opponents believe casinos would add to Mexico’s already long list of social problems
Sotelo dismisses those criticisms by saying, they want to maintain this taboo because they’ve seen a lot of Hollywood movies, especially The Godfather.
There are also opponents in the tourism industry.
More than 70 hotels and hotel chains, vacation clubs, and car rental, disco and restaurant associations signed a letter demanding that the government let them in on its plans before Congress legalized gambling.
The group said it represented 60 percent of the annual investment in tourism in the country.
“We don’t want a monopoly,” said Alfonso Murillo, general manager of the Los Cabos Golf Resort. “We want it so the profits are for the community.”
Local hotel owners fear the government will only give a few powerful Mexican or foreign companies the rights to prospective casinos, leaving them out of the game.
In advertisements in many of the major newspapers, this group wrote that it fears a few big-money casinos could destroy many small- and medium-size businesses.
Others don’t want casinos in Mexico for fear they would destroy beautiful communities like this one, where the desert meets the sea. They don’t want the sounds of coins clinking out of slot machines to overpower the sounds of the sea.
“We don’t need them in Los Cabos because Los Cabos has enough attractions to bring tourists,” said Angel Zavala, manager of the Marina Fiesta hotel, just off of the Cabo San Lucas marina where wealthy Americans and others dock their yachts.
Fishing in the crystalline water off Cabo San Lucas, swimming along Lover’s Beach and whale watching are just some of the attractions that bring more than 200,000 tourists to this area yearly.
Tourists who visited Cabo San Lucas in October said casinos would not influence their decision to travel here.
“It wouldn’t be an additional draw to come to here or any part of Mexico,” said Curtis Clarke, 46, of Dallas.
Michael Dirk, 27, originally of Corpus Christi but now a resident of Los Angeles, said casinos wouldn’t matter to him, but his family would be more likely to visit Cabo San Lucas if there were the additional attraction of gambling.
“They love casinos,” said Dirk, who has visited Cabo San Lucas several times to go fishing.
One group of partying tourists from Arizona said casinos here would add to the cost of the already expensive beach resort.
“Great, then they can have all of my money,” one man said.