TIJUANA — Baja California has been losing cruise-ship visitors, sales of coastal real estate have plummeted and many resort hotel rooms sit empty. Yet the range of tourism offerings for visitors to the state has never been greater.
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
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Among this year’s choices: a large agricultural fair in Mexicali, new fine-dining restaurants in Tijuana, an expanded wine festival in Ensenada, and surfing and rock-climbing classes in Rosarito Beach.
In the wake of a difficult decade for tourism, government and private promoters in Baja California are finding more ways to attract visitors as they launch into the traditional summer peak season. The state’s tourism secretary, Juan Tintos, speaks of “reorganizing, redefining our strategies in the tourism sector.”
That means continuing to target Hispanics living in the United States but also relying more heavily on Mexican domestic tourism. It means depending far less on the traditional flow of Americans to Baja California’s beaches and focusing on new niches: athletes and sports fans, food and wine devotees, convention visitors and medical tourists.
When things were going well, “the state didn’t have a need to look in general at what it can offer,” said Laura Torres, whose family owns and operates Rosarito Beach Hotel. Then a series of crises in recent years forced the search for a broader range of offerings.
Torres, the head of Baja California’s Business Coordinating Council, has started a tour agency that takes guests on excursions such as whale-watching trips, visits to a Spanish mission, rappelling classes in nearby La Mision.
“We have so much to offer, that we’re ourselves getting to know our state,” she said.
Jahdiel Vargas, a tourism consultant in Tijuana, said the region is still evolving from the mindset of “traditional 1980s tourism,” when “it didn’t matter what you did as long as you were in a foreign country.” The latest trends in tourism worldwide — where many visitors now seek out specific activities — are forcing specialization and different promotional strategies for Baja California, he said.
“The tourists who are trying to find new experiences in Mexico are pushing us to do better,” Vargas said.
A decade ago, lengthy waits at ports of entry along the San Diego sector dealt a severe blow to cross-border tourism, the result of tighter U.S. border security following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In subsequent years, the U.S. economic downturn, the H1N1 swine-flu scare and reports of drug-gang violence in Mexico served to further discourage American visitors to Baja California.
Aiming for a recovery, Tijuana’s Tourism and Conventions Committee has sought out new markets.
“Blue-eyed, blond tourism is not coming down, by a long shot,” said Mariano Escobedo, the committee’s president. In its place, he said, local, state and national Mexican tourists are increasingly filling the void.
Figures from Banco de Mexico show that tourist expenditures in Baja California dropped from $1.25 billion in 2006 to $1.01 billion in 2009, while the numbers of international visitors fell from 27.1 million to 24.1 million in that period.
The downward trend was stemmed last year with a slight increase in both counts, and tourism promoters have been taking heart.
Tourism accounted for about one-tenth of Baja California’s revenues last year, generating about $835 million, Tintos said. He hopes to raise that figure to $855 million this year.
“We’re not abandoning the American market, we’re changing our strategy” with methods such as emphasizing the use of social media and reaching out more to Canadians and U.S. Hispanics, Tintos said.
According to hotel occupancy figures, the signs have been encouraging on holiday weekends — including Easter and Memorial Day — especially in Rosarito, San Felipe and other beach destinations.
One sign of the changing times is Turista Libre, a monthly tour led by Derrik Chinn, a U.S. citizen who lives in Tijuana.
His day trips draw between 25 and 40 participants who come to experience Tijuana like a Tijuanense might on his or her day off: visits to an indoor roller-skating rink, a Xolos soccer game, Tijuana’s cultural center, the El Vergel water park in eastern Tijuana — site of the June 25 tour.
The idea, Chinn said, is to “put an outsider in the shoes of an insider for the day.”
San Diegans, he said, do “hear good things about Tijuana amid all the bad news. They’ll catch whiffs of good things — like ‘Tijuana has an amazing music scene, Tijuana has an amazing arts scene’ — but they don’t know how to go about finding it.”
BAJA CALIFORNIA TOURISM: WHAT’S CHANGING
More Mexican visitors
*The domestic market has become increasingly important for Baja California’s tourism industry in recent years.
*More than 90 percent of the 18,000 out-of-state visitors to Mexicali’s annual Agrobaja agricultural fair this year were from other parts of Mexico, according to the event’s coordinators.
*Tijuana’s Tourism and Conventions Committee reports that domestic demand accounts for 80 percent of hotel-room rentals.
*The Rosarito Ensenada 50-Mile Fun Bicycle Ride, a twice-yearly event that traditionally has relied heavily on U.S. tourists, has been attracting an increasingly larger proportion of Mexican riders. “Baja tourism is reinventing itself, and we that bring tourists down are adapting to its changes,” said Gary Foster, the ride’s promoter.
*The Baja California High Performance Center, a sprawling athletic facility that opened in 2003, has allowed Tijuana to host national and international competitions. The state is making a bid to host Mexico’s National Olympics in 2013. The event drew 13,000 athletes and 20,000 supporters to the area when it was held in 2009.
*The Xoloitzcuintles soccer team in Tijuana has developed a growing following on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, particularly after its ascension to Mexico’s Primera Division in May.
*A new convention center is under construction between Tijuana and Rosarito Beach. It is scheduled to open in 2012 and will be able to accommodate close to 5,000 people, state officials said.
*Tijuana’s Tourism and Conventions Committee has 20 national conventions on its calendar for this year. Among groups that have gathered in the city so far are the Mexican Association of Public Accountants, the Mexican Volleyball Federation and the National Congress of Urological Gynecology.
Food and wine
*Ensenada’s Fiestas de la Vendimia, the annual grape harvest festivities, drew close to 35,000 visitors last year. Organizers expect to surpass that number during this year’s event in August.
*Mexico’s federal tourism secretary has listed Valle de Guadalupe and surrounding wine-producing areas among the nation’s 10 major tourist routes.
*More microbreweries are pulling beer aficionados to the state. Many of them will be featured next month at a beer festival in Tijuana.
*Baja California cuisine has been receiving greater international recognition. For example, celebrity chef Rick Bayless is focusing on Baja cuisine during the eighth season of his PBS program, “Mexico, One Plate at a Time,” which is scheduled to air this year.
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