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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.

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Fred Williams Aug. 13, 2009 @ 5:31 a.m.

With numbers like that, why, why, why do the "Head in the Sanders" down town insist on building yet another extension to the Convention Center?

I remember some years ago reading quite a few articles about how important cross-border traffic was to San Diego's economy. There were some impressive figures associated with Mexicans coming across to shop here.

What are those numbers now I wonder? If tourism is a proxy for those figures, I'd guess they're down considerably.


Don Bauder Aug. 13, 2009 @ 3:28 p.m.

Response to post #1: Yes, border crossings are down 30% since 2003, as mentioned in the story. Tijuana tourism is down around 80% -- at least from the U.S. San Diego used to use Tijuana as a tourism magnet. No more. Best, Don Bauder


Ponzi Aug. 14, 2009 @ 4 p.m.

In my youth, my family frequently visited Tijuana for shopping, dog races and Jai Alai. In my college years, friends and I routinely went to surf, fish or play at Rosarito or Puerto Nuevo for lobster dinners. Over the years I took dozens of visiting friends and relatives to Tijuana for a day trip..

Over two decades I went to Tijuana probably 10 times a year. However, I feel that "9/11" changed the dynamics that made a quick trip to Tijuana easy and the violence (although not all random) is a safety concern. I have nothing against Mexico, but since 2001 I’ve had no compelling reason to go to Tijuana.


Visduh Aug. 14, 2009 @ 4:57 p.m.

While TJ and its "foreignness" was a draw for San Diego, it can still draw tourists without having them cross the border. SD has Mexican cantinas and restaurants in abundance. If many of the tourists who cross the border really knew the dangers of travel in TJ, they would definitely decide to stay away.

Those who want the illicit goods and services that TJ can provide will probably still chance a trip. Steroids on every corner? STD's for one and all? No, San Diego cannot readily provide those things, but it can still provide a pleasant vacation with a strong Mexican flavor.

It is a good sign that the usual gringo tourist is finally hearing that travel in Mexico isn't the greatest idea. Sad, because one of our favorite family vacation trips came in 1985 when we flew from TJ to Los Cabos at Thanksgiving and had a really delightful stay in a resort hotel. No more.


SurfPuppy619 Aug. 14, 2009 @ 5:36 p.m.

The TJ/Mexico corruption has hit the toppling point and the country is basically imploding from corruption.

50 families in Mexico own 90% of the wealth-and not because they earned it or are smarter than the other 90%, but because the system is corrupt and broken.

I used to annually go to TJ many years ago, just park in the USA and walk across, and everytime I did I always wondered why I kept doing it. TJ is the dirtiest city in the world. Finally one day I just decided I am never coming back, it just isn't fun anymore-and I didn't.

I sure would not go anywhere in Mexico today with drug trafficing murders going on daily.


David Dodd Aug. 14, 2009 @ 9:19 p.m.

I'm beginning to adore all of the sudden experts about Mexico. SurfPuppy and Visduh. Damn, you guys are so right on the mark. You should write scathing articles about it. Be sure to not provide sources. That's how it's done in the United States of America, after all, isn't it? Unnamed sources. No references. I love it. Please don't ever come here guys, because the violence is only targeted at tourists and the U.S. is so not corrupt it would be a shame to have you see people bribing the government on the streetcorner here.

No offense, but Ponzi is a lot closer to the truth than you are.


Don Bauder Aug. 14, 2009 @ 10:07 p.m.

Response to post #3: It's clear that most American tourists feel the same way. Best, Don Bauder


Don Bauder Aug. 14, 2009 @ 10:11 p.m.

Response to post #4: You used to hear stories of young men going to TJ and coming back with a social disease. Those were the mild days. Best, Don Bauder


Don Bauder Aug. 14, 2009 @ 10:13 p.m.

Response to post #5: Your attitude is prevalent on this side of the border. Best, Don Bauder


Don Bauder Aug. 14, 2009 @ 10:16 p.m.

Response to post #6: I don't think anybody has said the U.S. is not corrupt. Actually, grossly uneven distribution of wealth often correlates with corruption. It's little wonder that the U.S. is becoming so much more corrupt. Case in point: Wall Street. It screws the public and owns the politicians. Best, Don Bauder


David Dodd Aug. 14, 2009 @ 10:33 p.m.

10: Don, I've lived here for 17 years and been coming down here regularly for twenty. It's much better and fairer than it ever was. There is an emerging middle class. Corruption is everywhere on both sides, but in Mexico and especially Baja, it is so much better than it has ever been. Ponzi is more correct about the reason for the lack of tourism here (aside from the economy in general), it has more to do with the 9/11 border tightening than with anything else.

Also of note: Mexico, unlike the U.S., has not learned the art of taxation. The wealthy are so overtaxed that it invites more corruption (in getting out from under the tax) than anything else. There is no powerful force here like the I.R.S. There are no teeth to support Mexico's tax laws. The majority of Mexico's tax revenue is from their 10% national sales tax on non-food items.


SurfPuppy619 Aug. 14, 2009 @ 11:19 p.m.

I'm beginning to adore all of the sudden experts about Mexico. SurfPuppy and Visduh.

By refriedgringo

I never claimed to be an "expert", but I can give my anecdotal experiences.

As for the concentration of wealth in Mexico, and the problems it poses-those are pretty much well known facts.

As for the filth in TJ, I will let anyone who goes there be the judge of it.


SurfPuppy619 Aug. 14, 2009 @ 11:23 p.m.

Ponzi is more correct about the reason for the lack of tourism here (aside from the economy in general), it has more to do with the 9/11 border tightening than with anything else.

The tightening of the border is definitely part of the problem, as I undertsand it you now need a passport.......please post your "source" that this has "...more to do with the 9/11 border tightening than with anything else."

I would say the drug killings are at least as responsible, if not more so, than the border crossing hassles.


David Dodd Aug. 14, 2009 @ 11:36 p.m.

SurfPuppy, filth is relative. Danger is relative. I can point out a half-dozen places in San Diego that are probably more dangerous than anywhere in Tijuana. I can point out some filthy places in San Diego.

I'll get back to you with MY sources, but I'll have them. And the "drug killings" are conceptual (yes, they happen, but not to toursists). In other words, tourists fear that they'll get their heads chopped off because of what they read in the paper on the other side of the border. It simply isn't the case.

And the bridge in the classes here isn't as great as it once was. It is closing much faster than what is happening in the U.S. (which is actually widening).

I'll post some links and facts when I get a chance.


Fred Williams Aug. 15, 2009 @ 12:57 a.m.

I used to spend a lot of time in Mexico.

But the last few times I visited the border hassle was so extreme that it just didn't make sense to even attempt for anything but the most serious reasons.

This is probably the primary reason tourism has dropped so precipitously...

As to the drug violence, there's only one reason for that. It's the idiotic "War on Drugs" and the violence it engenders. If we would simply recognize the futility and immorality of this phoney "war", the violence in TJ and the rest of latin america would drop dramatically.

Those who blame Mexico for the violence just don't get it. The Mexican people are suffering (and dying) because our political leaders play at being moralistic pig-headed idiots who insist on being world-wide crusaders against disfavored intoxicants.

Think about the affect of eliminating these stupidities from our lives. No hours-long waits as drug dogs sniff your car. No more financing drug-lords with enormous profits that are the direct result of the illegality of the substances involved. No more destabilizing our neighbors, ruining their economies because we unilaterally declare "war", and are too ignorant to listen to the rest of the world.

Former presidents from across latin america are united in declaring the drug war a total failure, having achieved the exact opposite of it's aims and in the process destroying tens of thousands of innocent lives.


Fred Williams Aug. 15, 2009 @ 1:09 a.m.

Surfpuppy, I cannot agree with you that TJ is the filthiest city in the world...have you ever been to India, Cambodia, or Romania?

When I worked in Delhi, the conditions of the average person appalled me...but worse was the attitude of the ruling classes. They do not even consider their poor neighbors to be human beings. (Anyone who thinks Hinduism is a "nice" religion doesn't have any clue what they're talking about.)

I crossed the Thai/Cambodia border at Poipet on the way to Ankor Wat, and it's the most completely ****ed-up place I've ever seen. It makes Tijuana look like La Jolla in comparison. (Oh yes, those Buddhists sure have their problems too.)

How about Bucharest? They still have roaming packs of wild dogs on the street. You don't know fear until you're running for your life chased by vicious mongrels. (Is it something about religion that makes people poor? Romanians are always crossing themselves out of deep respect for their Orthodox churches.)

In comparison, Tijuana is a pretty, happy, friendly place.

The most unfriendly, abusive, nasty, untrustworthy people I've encountered there are the border patrol and customs agents at the border. Don't even look at them funny if you know what's good for you.


Visduh Aug. 15, 2009 @ 4:11 p.m.

Sadly, the border agents and border patrol officers often are unfriendly, abusive, nasty and untrustworthy (?) because they are being asked to enforce border laws that the top echelons of our government do not support. Our late and unlamented Bush administration talked tough at the border, while insuring that illegal entrants flooded the nation. The reason: cheap labor. It will be interesting to see what this administration does about border enforcement. If the real intentions are to keep the border open it will be to bring in lots of Democrat voters. The GOP doesn't enforce the border, the Dems have had no real desire either. So, the front line enforcers are really utterly undercut by the pols in charge.

Can you really blame them for being unfriendly, abusive . . . ?


SurfPuppy619 Aug. 15, 2009 @ 4:34 p.m.

Surfpuppy, I cannot agree with you that TJ is the filthiest city in the world...have you ever been to India, Cambodia, or Romania?

No, I have never been to any of these places, so I am going to have to qualify my statement;

TJ is the filthiest city I have personally seen.


SurfPuppy619 Aug. 15, 2009 @ 4:40 p.m.

How about Bucharest? They still have roaming packs of wild dogs on the street. You don't know fear until you're running for your life chased by vicious mongrels.

Funny you mention Bucharest, because there is a 2007 movie Showtime has been playing the last few months called "Blood and Chocolate" (werewolf film-very good) and it was filmed in Bucharest.

The opening scene has the lead character running through the City, and it is an areial shot that folllows her on this run, mixed in with land shots, and the City looks amazing. Beautiful looking city. It made me want to visit Bucharest. Anyway the film was hot entirely on location in Bucharest and it looked amazing to me, a place to visit.

So I am surprised you list it as having problems. I would certainly think it would be a poor country based on it's past-but the movie had so many shots of a beautiful city.


Don Bauder Aug. 15, 2009 @ 6:06 p.m.

Response to post #11: You say the Mexican superrich are overtaxed. But do they pay their taxes? Or does their loot wind up in offshore banks? Best, Don Bauder


Don Bauder Aug. 15, 2009 @ 6:08 p.m.

Response to post #12: The huge dropoff in American tourism speaks for itself. Best, Don Bauder


Don Bauder Aug. 15, 2009 @ 6:10 p.m.

Response to post #12: There is no question that 9/11 hit tourism everywhere. But other places recovered, at least until the current recession. Tijuana did not. Best, Don Bauder


Don Bauder Aug. 15, 2009 @ 6:14 p.m.

Response to post #14: If what you say is true -- and I strongly question your thesis -- then the Baja tourism authorities need a big advertising campaign. They say they are already planning one. Best, Don Bauder


Don Bauder Aug. 15, 2009 @ 6:17 p.m.

Response to post #15: I agree that the war on drugs has been a waste of money, but I am not in favor of decriminalization of trafficking in drugs. There could be ugly side effects. Best, Don Bauder


Don Bauder Aug. 15, 2009 @ 6:20 p.m.

Response to post #16: As an alcoholic or drug addict can always find and cite somebody else in worse condition, there are no doubt cities that are dirtier than TJ. Best, Don bauder


Don Bauder Aug. 15, 2009 @ 6:23 p.m.

Response to post #17: The matter will be decided by lobbyists for the food growing and processing industries, along with lobbyists from other low-pay industries. Best, Don Bauder


Don Bauder Aug. 15, 2009 @ 6:25 p.m.

Response to post #18: Even if you visited those cities, you might not be able to make a comparative pronouncement. Best, Don Bauder


Don Bauder Aug. 15, 2009 @ 6:28 p.m.

Response to post #19: Maybe it's the backstreets that are so filthy. You know the old saying: a city can throw tapestries over dung heaps to impress tourists. Best, Don Bauder


bbrucie Nov. 3, 2009 @ 12:11 a.m.

I am a frequent visitor to Tijuana. I have had ties and friends in TJ since I moved to San Diego 30 years ago. I usually go to areas away from the main tourist areas. I have had a passport for some years but I believe many people don't travel to TJ these days because of the passport requirment. Many family visitors who come to San Diego from other parts of the country, some as close as Los Angeles. The first place they want to go is Tijuana. When I mention the passport requirment they are dissappointed. Most don't worry about the so called violence because any metropolitan city in this country has its share of violence and bad areas. My biggest problem over the years visiting Tijuana has been the police. They see an American and I would get stopped frequently even though I hadn't broken any traffic laws. Now the police will only stop the worst drivers. The other invonvenience is the customs inspectors. The vast majority are respectful and do their jobs professionally. But once in a while I will get an inspector that makes me feel like a criminal or one that is rude. I am a former law enforcement officer and I know the range and scope of what is needed to be asked and those few go beyond that range. I feel fairly comfortable in Tijuana but just like any big city you need to be aware of your surroundings. To sum things up. I feel the biggest change in the past year has been the passport requirement for American citizens. I think a certified birth certificate with valid ID would be sufficient for re-entry to the U.S. I will continue going to Tijuana as I always have because I love being able to be in a forign country in a few minutes. I love the tacos and the food and I love the Mexican people. They have a rich culture, a spirit and customs that too few Americans will ever experience.


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