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NEWS & POLITICS - Baja launches drive to rehab image

By Sandra Dibble, UNION-TRIBUNE
Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 7:23 p.m.

TIJUANA, Mexico รข€" The state of Baja California has joined forces with its five municipalities in a $500,000 public relations effort aimed at changing Americans' negative perceptions about the region and winning back the confidence of U.S. tourists.

Leading the year-long campaign is Allison & Partners, a U.S. public relations firm with offices in San Diego. The company signed a $300,000 contract with Baja California officials this week. Tim Wheatcroft, general manager of the firm's San Diego office, said he expects to use a range of approaches "to make sure that the state has a more positive image."

Allison & Partners will work closely with San Diego-based Crossborder Group Inc., a market research and public relations company, as it conducts the campaign.

The project is Baja California's latest response to the decline in tourism it has confronted in recent years. An economic recession , drug-related violence, clogged border crossings and last year's H1N1 swine-flu pandemic have caused the number of U.S. visitors to drop severely. Many hotels and other tourist-oriented businesses in Baja California suffered record losses in 2009, the state's officials said. Tourism authorities there said the downward trend has been reversed slightly, but "even though things are picking up, we don't want to go back to how we were," said Oscar Escobedo, Baja California's tourism secretary.

The campaign will highlight attractions across the state, such as wineries in the Guadalupe Valley, the shorelines of Rosarito Beach and San Felipe, and restaurants in Tijuana and Mexicali. It will target groups that might want to visit Baja California, such as those interested in action sports, cruises, gambling, medical care and culture.

While major news organizations have a policy of underwriting their own expenses, the campaign has set aside $100,000 to pay airfare and expenses for journalists who visit on sponsored trips. Another $100,000 has been earmarked to promote Baja California's image through social media.

Wheatcroft said Crossborder Group will seek out contacts with universities, chambers of commerce and other groups north of the border to encourage tourism in Baja California. One objective will be to cancel travel advisories to Mexico, such as the one issued by the California State University system, and stress that visitors with no criminal ties have not been the targets of violent crime.

"If people are going to write horrible stuff, best thing you can do is drown it out with positive stuff," Wheatcroft said.

Tijuana is key to any image-building project, said Jahdiel Vargas, director of Tijuana's Tourism and Conventions Committee. It is the state's most populated city and the one whose reputation has been most tarnished by the drug-related violence of recent years.

This is the first time Baja California's state government has joined forces with the region's five tourism and conventions committees in a promotional campaign. The state is covering half the cost, while the committees have committed to pay the rest.

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