Ensenada is Mexico’s only cruise port seeing an increase in visitation. // © 2013 Baja California State Tourism Secretariat
When Tijuana entered a dark period of drug cartel violence in 2007-2009, tourism to Baja California suffered. It didn’t help that, at the same time, the U.S. was in an economic downturn and enhanced security at the border crossing into the U.S. was creating longer wait times. In 2010, tourism began to improve through a series of tourism initiatives and the fact that much of the cartel violence moved to other parts of Mexico.
Tourism statistics from 2012 show that 28.7 million Americans visited Baja that year, and statewide hotel occupancy increased by five percent. There are other encouraging figures being revealed. Last December, Baja California's Office of the Secretary of Tourism partnered with U.S.-based DAPA Research firm and the Mexican think tank El Colegio de la Frontera Norte to conduct a perception survey among 600 Southern Californians and found a 95 percent confidence level among potential visitors to Baja California.
“It was an eye-opening survey that told us we’d seen some progress about violence but we needed to do more,” said Juan Benjamin Tintos Funcke, secretary of tourism for Baja California. “We increased the number of Baja California Tourism roadshows throughout California, Arizona and Nevada. We also created a program of expats acting as spokespersons for the region and they too began accompanying the roadshows. We had Americans talking to Americans about their experiences in Baja California, which was a great help.”
Tintos noted a “cuisine umbrella” driving visitation to the region. The umbrella was composed of the popularity of Baja Med cuisine; visits by celebrity food experts such as Rick Bayless, Andrew Zimmerman and Anthony Bourdain; and the growth of the region’s wine industry. Baja’s wine country saw eight new wineries in the past year, bringing the number up to 70 wineries total. In addition, Baja California has a burgeoning microbrewery product, with 45 microbreweries and annual beer festivals in Tijuana and Ensenada.
“We also saw confidence indicators that showed our special events were attracting greater numbers of Americans,” said Tintos.
These include such popular events as the Score Baja 1000 off-road race and the International Game Fish Circuit’s Governor’s Cup in Ensenada.
“Add to this that the film industry is returning, with a major film from Robert Redford completing filming in Rosarito, and you have a region that is regaining its tourism footing,” said Tintos.
According to Tintos, Ensenada is in the enviable position of being the only cruise port in Mexico receiving an increase of passengers rather than a decrease. He also noted that Ensenada is the second most popular port in Mexico, and the port saw a year over year increase of 11 percent, with the prospect of 250,000 more passengers being added in 2014 via Carnival. Tintos also noted that Princess Cruises will begin calling on Ensenada in 2014, with seven arrivals scheduled.
“Two thirds of the passengers are from the Los Angeles area,” said Tintos. “Currently they spend 8-10 hours in port and spend, on average, $50 a passenger; of course, we’d like to see this average spend increase.”
According to Tintos, the four major goals of Baja California governor Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan were met during his term. These were to improve air connectivity; upgrade the infrastructure, especially the roads; improve the border crossing experience; and open the Centro Metropolitano de Convenciones, which is scheduled to debut on April 18.
Looking Close to Home
A Sectur study in 2011 noted that 85 percent of Baja California’s tourism was generated by Mexican travelers.
“The Hispanic market is a huge one for us,” said Tintos. “They love soccer — we’re the home of the Xolos de Tijuana. The Hispanic market also comes to Baja California for special events and for family occasions, such as quinceaneras, which are Mexico’s version of a sweet 16 party.”
Tintos also noted that many Mexican visitors take advantage of what the destination markets as a “Two Nation Vacation.” They combine a trip to Baja California with a trip across the border to the U.S. where they visit American attractions and take advantage of the shopping at the outlet stores. He added that while the Mexican market is important to the destination, Baja California is in no way ignoring the American market.
“In tourism, you have to have the ability to adapt,” said Tintos. “We’ll be promoting Baja California as being affordable and close — quality plus price. Our best promotion is a satisfied traveler. If a traveler has a good experience, they’ll tell three of their friends; if they have a bad experience, they’ll tell seven people. Satisfaction is key.”