CANCUN, Mexico — When most people think of Cancun, they see soft white beaches and turquoise water glistening in the sun.
When Juan Carlos Lopez thinks of the popular Gulf coast resort, he sees Chinese electronics and toys and home-building fixtures arrayed in Chinese showrooms for sale by Chinese exporters.
Lopez wants to bring to Cancun the largest commercial center peddling Chinese wares in the Americas — a $180-million, 1,376-acre year-round trade fair two miles from the sea and its sensitive reefs.
Plans for the complex, to be named Dragon Mart, also include 3,040 exhibition spaces for more than 1,000 vendors and housing for 722 Chinese citizens.
"It will be like a trade show in Vegas, but permanent," said Lopez, Dragon Mart's executive director.
And in Cancun.
The mega-project has angered a diverse group of critics, including Mexican industrialists, who don't like the idea of flooding the domestic market with cheap Chinese goods, and environmentalists, who worry about pollution and the fragile land- and seascapes, as well as the loss of open space.
After a series of sometimes contentious town hall meetings in Cancun, the city government in late April denied a building permit to Dragon Mart. But Lopez was ready, filing a legal motion in court that could eventually allow him to go ahead with his plans.
Lopez, his partners and their backers portray Dragon Mart as an important catalyst for East-West commerce. Buyers from all over the Americas, "from Canada to Argentina," could find vast quantities of Chinese products in easy-to-reach Cancun, already the destination of more than 10 million visitors annually. And for the Chinese vendors, Dragon Mart would provide a huge toehold in a continent where trade with Asia is growing fast.
Cancun's Dragon Mart would be the second-largest retail venue for Chinese products outside China, second only to a Dragon Mart erected in 2004 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. It is being paid for by a consortium of Mexican businessmen and Chinamex, a Dutch-registered export-development firm run by Chinese businessman Hao Feng with the blessing of Beijing.
Despite such grandiose plans, the potential site of the future Dragon Mart does not look like much right now. It is a wide, gently sloping space of sand and stones, crisscrossed and rimmed by green and brilliant red brush, as well as a number of trees. It is vacant as far as the eye can see, just inland from the north-south highway that goes from Cancun to the elite enclaves of Puerto Morelos and Tulum.
"What's here is just rocks," Lopez said, dismissing the complaints from ecologists. Most of the opposition to the project, he insisted, is politically motivated. "There is so much noise, so much misinformation. They make up something new every week."
One somewhat unfortunately worded ad taken out in Mexican newspapers by the Dragon Mart group urged citizens not to believe "cuentos chinos" — Chinese stories, an expression in Mexico for fibs.
Residents in Cancun also objected to the Dragon Mart plan of including housing for hundreds of Chinese, saying it would be tantamount to placing a colony of foreigners in the middle of Cancun (and presumably denying jobs to Mexicans).
Tulio Arroyo, president of a Cancun organization that fights to preserve the last of the region's parks and green spaces, said it would be an "aberration" to create a new, segregated population center within an existing one.
"You can't just plop them down just anywhere," he said.
Julian Ricalde, mayor of the municipality that includes Cancun, said Dragon Mart would tax the region's already overburdened infrastructure, especially roads that would have to bear trucks bringing in merchandise for the showrooms.
Ricalde denied any touch of xenophobia in the objections of Cancun residents.
"They don't fear the Chinese people," he said in an interview before denying the permit. "What they fear is a commercial scheme that you can't compete against."
The government of Quintana Roo, the state that includes Cancun, was an enthusiastic backer of the mega-mall and initially green-lighted the project.
The state government belongs to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who is seeking to greatly expand trade with China. He will play host this week to Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose nation is already Mexico's No. 2 partner after the United States. It's currently a highly unbalanced trade situation, however, with Mexico chalking up a mammoth trade deficit. Peña Nieto's government has not publicly addressed the Dragon Mart controversy.
Ricalde, meanwhile, is a member of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, rival of the PRI. He said he denied the construction permits because the project was too big and dense. After his decision, opponents of Dragon Mart paraded in the streets of Cancun to celebrate, even though the victory might be temporary.
Lopez — vowing to fight on and perhaps emboldened by potential state and federal support — scolded Cancun authorities and residents for missing the boat.
"They lose sight of the benefits — investment, jobs," Lopez said. Dragon Mart "can make Cancun not only a top tourist destination, but also a major commercial center."