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Time-share Hell.

Vacation hawkers are the scourge of Baja California's Cape resort.

IT WAS ON A FAMILY VACATION IN MEXICO with my wife and sons, aged 6 and 3, that I discovered the horror striking travelers in Cabo San Lucas: time-share hell.

Vacationers Sean McKelvey and his wife tipped us off with their tale of being pestered on streets and chased down hotel hallways. It verified what I had already heard. Cabo has turned from a relaxed beach hangout to a frenzied town of time-share units and their vendors. Time-share hawkers paid by developers appear set on ruining the very quality that has attracted tourists to the sparkling desert beaches of the peninsula.

The government has set aside areas where hawkers of seashell mobiles and ceramic masks may not venture. But there's no protection from the time-share touts. They get you on the beach, in your lobby, in taxis and at restaurants.

While the McKelveys never had any intention of buying such a vacation, millions of people around the world are diving in, making time-shares a lucrative trend. In 1980, only 150,000 households owned a time-share at 500 resorts worldwide. Today, 6 million have time-shares at 4,000 resorts in more than 80 countries, generating US$7 billion annually in sales, according to the American Resort Development Association.

Yet, around the world, there are complaints. In the United Kingdom, the Timeshare Consumers Association (TCA) claims the industry systematically cheats consumers; it's pushing for legislation to end the arm-twisting practices. Typical scams include time-shares that don't exist, luxury apartments that you sign up for--only to discover you've been assigned a more modest place--and renovation charges that go to projects unrelated to the time-share owners.

It's not surprising that the time-share hustle is particularly fierce in Mexico, the world's No. 8 destination with 20 million visitors a year. About 20% of rooms at leading resorts are now set aside as timeshares, according to the Travelers Guide to Mexico.

A time-share vendor, Andres, nailed me on our first day in Cabo at the beach. He offered a $100 discount on our rental car and a family outing on a glass bottom boat if I would just attend a short presentation the next day. Sensing a good deal and a possible column, I bit. "Don't let me down," said Andres. "If you don't show up, I don't get my $10 commission and that's how I feed my family."

The next morning, I found myself at Cabo Villa Resort owned by Epic Resorts, a U.S. developer and marketer of timeshare resorts, eating scrambled eggs with Canadian Mark Hornak. Behind us, workers put the finishing touches on one- and two-bedroom apartments. Hornak, 32, explained that time-share vacationers no longer need buy a deeded property where they go every year at the same time. Instead, they can purchase points or credits that can be exchanged for days or weeks at resorts around the world. Time-sharing requires an initial investment of $5,000 to $20,000 for a chunk of time--usually a week--at a resort or apartment complex for 20 or 25 years, plus an annual maintenance fee. Many resorts subsidize these fees for the first few years. Later, the fees increase.

When I seemed unconvinced, Hornak brought in his boss, Robert Rivard, a second-generation salesman whose mother had sold time-shares in Florida. Rivard listed the luxury hotel chains on the time-share bandwagon: Hilton, Sheraton, Four Seasons and Marriott. He quoted Will Rogers ("The best way to win an argument is to be right"), Dale Carnegie ("Knowledge plus action equals success") and himself ("Too much analysis causes paralysis"). After three hours passed and my checkbook remained in my pocket, his folksy charm dissipated. He told me I'd have to sign a waiver acknowledging that the "incredibly low rate" he just offered me ended at the door. "If you don't sign, I can't give you the prizes," he added, referring to the car rental discount and glass bottom boat. I slapped my name on the waiver.

There are signs of a backlash. A popular guidebook tells visitors to avoid areas where several time-share venders have set up booths. A local dive shop has a sign with an X through the word timeshare. Shops sell T-shirts stamped "What part of 'No' don't you understand?"

To be sure, many time-share owners are not subject to pressure practices. And some may even be a good deal, But it's time for the Baja government to regulate the time-share antics before they drive the tourists away.
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Latin Trade
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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