This Mexican prison island is being transformed into a tourist destination

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Prisons have had a bloody appeal to tourists for decades. Alcatraz, once home to Al Capone, is now open to visitors in California. And in Belfast you can visit the Crumlin Road Gaol, an important site during the Troubles. Now, three years after its prison was closed, this group of Mexican islands is being transformed into a tourist destination.

The Islas Marías archipelago is four hours by boat from the Pacific coast of the country. It is magnificent: the four islands are full of rare animals such as the Raccoon Tres Marias, and it now has Unesco World Heritage Site status. But it was also a penal colony for more than a century, until its final closure in 2019. It is the eco-friendly tourism market that the Mexican government is trying to tap into, the prison itself being redesigned as a museum and cultural centre. The navy itself will organize tours and also run the express ferry service.

The prison facility was known for its shocking treatment of inmates while it was open. Speaking to Bloomberg last week, former inmate Beatriz Maldonado recounted how 500 prisoners shared only five bathrooms. “They didn’t pay attention to us when someone got sick,” she said. “My friend’s gallbladder ruptured.” Others drowned trying to escape.

Of the redevelopment, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said, “What was a hell becomes a paradise”. Guests will be able to learn about the islands history – even while staying in the old prison buildings, which serve the dual purpose of preventing new construction on environmentally important land.

The destination could be open in as little as three months, provided seasonal hurricanes – one of the factors that closed the prison – do not interrupt development.

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