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Baja Norte, and Tijuana specifically, faced some hard times over the last four years. A combination of violence in the streets and a stuttering economy delivered a knockout punch to the region’s tourism. This year has seen a major turnaround for the region. The violence has shifted away from Tijuana, and Baja Norte tourism is expected to benefit.
“Southern California thought Tijuana was going to disappear,” said Mariano Escobedo, president of the Tourism and Conventions Bureau, Tijuana. “Then they noticed it was still here, so they’re coming down to see the destination for themselves.”
Baja Norte is a region bordered on the west by Pacific coast beaches and the Sea of Cortez on the east. Tourism centers include such cities as Tijuana, Rosarito, Ensenada, Tecate, Mexicali and San Felipe. The wine-growing region of Valle de Guadulupe has great potential for tourism growth by positioning itself as the Baja Norte version of Napa Valley.
Last spring, travel show host Anthony Bourdain brought his television series “No Reservations” south of the border to explore the cuisine of Baja Norte. This gave a tremendous tourism boost to the destination, with Bourdain praising the food and ambience of such locations as Tijuana, Ensenada and Valle de Guadulupe, which he compared to Tuscany.
Developments are also in the works for the destination. In March 2013, a huge convention center will be opening near Tijuana (about a 20-minute drive away). Hyatt has also announced plans to build a 144-room hotel in Tijuana.
“We’re riding a wave right now, and things are improving,” said Escobedo. “Our Baja Mediterranean cuisine is first class. New restaurants are popping up, and we have a vibrant cultural and performing arts scene. We’re marketing Baja Norte because we have something to brag about. We wouldn’t be marketing the destination otherwise.”
As an example of the “new” Tijuana, Escobedo pointed to last month’s inauguration of pedicab service within the city. Visitors to San Diego will be familiar with these pedicabs, which are open-air cabs powered by a cyclist. According to Escobedo, a San Diego pedicab company has ventured into Tijuana to provide these tourist-centric rides.
“This says a lot about how safe Tijuana has become,” said Escobedo.
As proof that Tijuana is getting noticed as a success story, Escobedo noted that officials in troubled destinations in Mexico have begun reaching out to Tijuana, asking city officials to share how they turned the violence around.
There is also a huge U.S. financed project underway. The border crossing into the U.S. from Tijuana at San Ysidro has been a sore point for travelers for years. The crossing from Mexico into the U.S. can often take more than two hours and even longer at peak hours, including Sunday afternoons. A three-phase project to remodel the border is underway, at a cost approaching $2 billion. A recent test of the new lanes cut the crossing time down to 25 minutes. This will be a huge boon to Baja Norte tourism once the enhanced lanes are in place on a regular basis, since the greatest numbers of visitors are the self-drive market from Southern California.
Banging the Drum for Rosarito
According to Daniel Torres, director of marketing at Rosarito Beach Hotel, Rosarito is emerging from a difficult period. Prior to 2008, approximately 90 percent of Rosarito’s visitors were from the U.S. This figure dipped down to 10 percent between 2008 and 2011. In 2012, the freefall was halted and visitation from the U.S. climbed back to 60 percent.
When the Caribbean faced economic challenges two years ago, resorts began announcing value-added promotions, such as “Fifth Night Free” offers. Rosarito hoteliers are going way beyond what we saw in the Caribbean. Torres points to aggressive deals in the Rosarito marketplace, with local hoteliers offering such promotions as “Two Nights for the Cost of One.”
Rosarito, a resort town on Baja Norte’s Pacific coast, has a rich history as a film location. “Titanic” was filmed at Rosarito’s Baja Studios, where a huge water tank was constructed to film the sinking of the Titanic. The city recently received favorable press as the location of the upcoming Robert Redford movie, “All is Lost.”
“Redford was very approachable during the filming,” said Torres. “You’d see him running on the beach in the morning, or coming down to the lobby in his bare feet.”
“For 70 years the market was flowing effortlessly back and forth between Mexico and Southern California,” said Normando Novelo, Estero Beach hotel owner and member of Ensenada's Tourism Board (Proturismo) and the Ensenada Hotel Association. “The year 2012 is really giving us high hopes. Our cruise business is rebounding. We never had cruise ships stop calling, the way some other ports in Mexico did, although we did inexperience the Southern California cruise market to Ensenada slowing down.”
Novelo acknowledged that there are areas that need improvement.
“We did get feedback that we needed to improve some of the standards and services at our sights, such as La Bufadora [Ensenada’s famous blowhole],” said Novelo. “We’re now improving litter pickup, restrooms and parking."
Novelo also noted that Ensenada is not specifically targeting the cruise market. Instead, Ensenada is focusing on the drive business from Southern California, including the family market.
Baja Norte’s seven wine-producing valleys (Guadalupe, Santo Tomas, Ojos Negros, Las Palmas, San Antonio de las Minas, San Vicente and la Grulla) produce 90 percent of Mexico’s wine. Valle de Guadalupe is the most developed for tourism, with six bed and breakfast properties and more than 50 wineries to explore. A high-end development called La Bruma is currently under construction. When completed in three years, La Bruma will do a lot to boost Valle De Guadalupe to Napa status, having a boutique hotel, a wine cellar by Hugo d’Acosta, vineyards in four varieties and a cultural center.
“The visitor to Valle de Guadulupe is a different type of visitor than we saw before,” said Novelo. “They’re more romantic. There’s something sophisticated about being in a beautiful setting and opening up a bottle of wine with your companion.”
Timing is everything, and it would appear that the time is right to put Baja Norte back on the tourism map.
“We’re still not out of the woods in terms of visitors,” said Novelo. “But we’re in the middle of a Baja Norte success story. If you haven’t been to Baja Norte in years, now is the time to do so. There are great rates, and the experience is something else.”