It wasn’t so long ago that the Convention and Visitors Bureau, hotel marketers, and San Diego ad agencies “would utilize Tijuana in advertising,” recalls Jack Giacomini, partner in Hotel Managers Group and head of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Mission Valley. “The pitch was ‘Come to San Diego, and in 20 minutes you can be in a foreign country.’ We no longer do that. It’s not part of marketing for the San Diego destination. We are avoiding the bad publicity Tijuana is getting.”
Back in those heady days, San Diego tourism promoters boasted that one class of visitors would make reservations in a San Diego hotel for the evening, go to Tijuana for a day, and return to San Diego for the second night. Some would consume too much giggle juice and spend the night in TJ. Those quickie local stayovers — whether one night or two — were touted as a good source of tourism income for San Diego. Nobody talks about that income anymore.
According to Worldfocus, an organization that covers international news for public television, 4 million people visited Tijuana in 2005, a good tourism year. Last year, that was down to 400,000. Some researchers estimate that visitor-related revenue in Tijuana has plummeted 80 percent since 2001.
Roberto Karlo López Páez of the Baja California Estate Tourism Secretariat says the Tijuana tourism decline “is not as dramatic as you might think.” However, Oscar Escobedo, Baja’s secretary of tourism, concedes that Anglo-Saxon tourism may be as bad as Worldfocus suggests, but overall Baja tourism is down only 20 percent.
Victor Clark, professor of anthropology at San Diego State University and a resident of Tijuana, says that the city had 19 million visitors in 1990, but the number now may be down to a quarter of a million — lower than Worldfocus estimates. He simply does not believe local tourism officials. “The reality is that tourism has collapsed. Avenida Revolución is a desert.”
In a 2002 Convention and Visitors Bureau poll, 7.7 percent of San Diego visitors said they intended to go to Tijuana or Mexico. By 2008, that was down to 1.6 percent, according to Susan Bruinzeel of ConVis.
Mexico itself has similar problems. Smith Travel Research keeps data on 21 countries in the Americas, including the United States. Thus far this year, hotel occupancy in Mexico is down 21.4 percent from a year ago; only two nations, Costa Rica and Argentina, are doing worse. Smith also tracks 20 major cities in the Americas. Mexico City is down 25.4 percent year to date, the worst performance. Smith doesn’t have adequate data to track Tijuana, says senior vice president Bobby Bowers.
The drug-related killings, recession, border-crossing delays, and recently the swine flu outbreak have walloped Tijuana tourism. “It’s really awful,” says Howard Hian, San Diego hotel consultant and travel writer. He says of the drug-cartel violence, “They shot themselves in the foot — oops, that is a bad metaphor.” (Victims should be so lucky to be shot in the foot.)
“Tourists are not stopping off in San Diego to go to Tijuana,” says Hian. Historically, Mexico has been the number-one tourist destination in Latin America. But crime-ridden cities like Tijuana are fading fast. “The Mexican Tourist Bureau is very anxious to host travel writers like me. I was invited to Cancún last year for ten days, and I am going back this fall. Tourist cities such as Cancún, Acapulco, Cabo San Lucas are keeping their fingers crossed; if there are incidents, the spigot will turn off immediately,” as happened to Tijuana.
Hian says he feels safer in Mexican resort towns than he does in other places in Latin America and just as safe as he does in some big U.S. cities. However, “The days of my going across the border for Mexican chocolate or to eat lunch in a nice place, or take my family, are unfortunately gone forever. The partying is over.”
Skip Hull, vice president of CIC Research, is now working on four border-crossing studies. He looks at northbound traffic but says that it is about equal to southbound movement. It appears that border crossings at San Ysidro and Otay Mesa peaked in 2003 and have dropped 30 percent.
The number of Mexicans coming to San Diego as tourists has dropped, but not as precipitously as the number of tourists visiting Tijuana. According to Convention and Visitors Bureau statistics, the number of Mexican day visitors for every month this year (ended in May) has been significantly below the same months of 2007. The total is down 10.6 percent from two years ago.
Now travelers have to present a border identity card or passport. “The hope is to reduce the wait times, but that remains to be seen,” says Hull. Next month, every vehicle entering Mexico at the border will be screened for items such as drugs. This will slow things.
So how much has the plunge in Tijuana tourism hurt San Diego’s travel business? “I don’t think statistics are available yet,” says Bob Rauch, who owns two hotels in Torrey Hills. “Possibly it is a benefit to us.” He notes that Carnival Cruise Lines recently canceled a stop in Mexico and added San Diego. “It’s abundantly clear people are not going to Tijuana, but whether they are bypassing San Diego or adding another day in San Diego is something we don’t know.”
Jerry Morrison, La Jolla hotel consultant, does not buy the argument that San Diego tourism may be benefiting from Tijuana’s megrims. “If it is helping San Diego, it is pretty hard to tell from the numbers, because the numbers are so grim,” says Morrison. The latest Smith Travel Research numbers show that for San Diego in June, revenue per available room, called RevPAR, was down 31.1 percent from June of 2008. Of the top 25 metro areas, only one did worse: New York City, down 34.9 percent. Room revenue plunged 28.9 percent, and again, only New York was worse, with a drop of 31.9 percent. Occupancy was down 14.6 percent; only four of the top 25 did worse. To be sure, the comparisons were difficult this June, because in June of last year, San Diego hosted the U.S. Open golf tournament.
For the year to date, RevPAR is down 24.9 percent; only three other cities are as bad off. Room revenue is down 22 percent; only four cities are lower. Occupancy is down 13.6 percent year to date; only four metro areas have done worse.
“We probably have lost some tourists [because of Tijuana’s woes], but I don’t think it’s significant,” says Giacomini. Hull thinks the Tijuana mess “is affecting our economy, but I’m not convinced it has a significant effect on our tourism.”
So where does San Diego tourism go from here? “Things have been miserable,” says Hull. “We turned down hard in the fourth quarter of last year. I have been looking for the bottom to be in the fourth quarter of this year. But looking out at economic conditions both in the U.S and globally, it’s going to be a couple of years down the road before we can start talking about growth of tourism. We have to get discretionary income up, and financial problems have to be worked out.”
“It’s ugly,” says Rauch. Corporate and individual business travel is way down. “The leisure markets [families, etc.] are still coming but spending less.” RevPAR will be down 15 percent in the third quarter and down 5 percent in the fourth. “In 2010, we will be back to 2009 levels, which are terrible. The hospitality-industry recession will last through 2010; it hit bottom in 2009 and will stay for a year.”
“Hopefully we have seen the worst,” says Giacomini. “July and August appear to be improving slightly. The fall and winter are in question. We have our fingers crossed for 2010.”
And Tijuana tourism? It “won’t get healthy until the U.S. does,” says Rauch. “They have to shed the traveler’s fears of violence and swine flu. They have to take charge of the drug cartel.” Nobody can predict when that will happen — if ever.