Baja, land of drug wars, tries to keep tourists coming

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Luring the usual millions of U.S. tourists back to Mexico’s sun-kissed Baja Peninsula has been a tall order this spring, considering the daily splash of border murders, gun smuggling and Tijuana’s near military lock-down due to the worst drug turf wars in recent northern Baja memory.

It’s a busy place at the nearby San Diego drug rehab centers.

But the city of 1.5 million, a sprawl of strip malls and cinder-block and tin-roofed buildings just south of San Diego, is fighting back. Last month, the city’s tourism office launched a new 120th anniversary tourism campaign: “120 Things To Do in Tijuana.”

Given the circumstances (Tijuana’s 843 murders last year doubled 2007’s), it takes moxie to launch such a campaign. Number one on the list: “Take a picture with the famous Tijuana zebra donkey.” Number 75: Get out of town by “Flying direct to Narita, Japan, from Tijuana Airport.”

Delusional thinking or marketing optimism? Today, Baja is a strange brew of death and promotion.

But as bullets and blood are played out on Tijuana’s dusty streets, President Obama discusses cross-border gun smuggling issues with Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon and U.S. Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano unveils new security measures along the San Diego-Tijuana border, it’s just business as usual for many, like Eric Camerino,

“Honestly, the drug problem hasn’t been an issue for us in San Diego,” says Camerino, who sells bicycles at Zumwalt’s Bicycle Center in San Diego. “The drug cartels have always been in Tijuana, the shoot-outs have always been there, it’s just that the military is catching on.”

Last week, Camerino tuned-up bikes for the 30th Annual Rosarito Beach-to-Ensenada Fun Ride set for April 18. The event, a notorious madhouse of semi-serious riding and beer drinking along the toll road between the two spring break towns south of the border, was more subdued this year. Normally, 6,000 arrive for the event, but this year crowds were only half that size. Other events, like a professional surfing competition, have been delayed or cancelled altogether due to the violence.

In once popular Rosarito Beach, where some 1.5 million tourists usually visit each year (and where 14,000 U.S. residents have homes), the narco-war news coverage has “murdered” business, according to city mayor Hugo Torres. Tourism in the first months of the year is off nearly 90%, he says.

Last month, the U.S. State Department took the unusual step of issuing a warning to U.S. citizens to avoid Mexico’s border towns, like Rosarito Beach. Big California universities, like UCLA, have also advised students to stay away from Mexico resort towns south of San Diego. To make matters worse, even iconic Latino celebrity Edward James Olmos recently urged people to “don’t go” to Mexico on CNN’s Larry King Live.

Local promoters and real estate agents cringe at the bad press, but the warnings aren’t surprising, with more than 1,300 murders along the border since January, nearly 90% drug-related. Beheadings and mutilated bodies along roadsides are common news items. In one sensational arrest, the police jailed Santiago Meza Lopez, a drug warlord “disposal expert,” who allegedly took hundreds of corpses and dissolved them in tubs of acid. He was known as El Pozolero, or “The Stewmaker.” Such a delicious story is difficult for the media to ignore.

As a result, Rosarito Beach hotels, 20 minutes from Tijuana, ran at a 60% occupancy rate during Easter week, according to Torres, a hotel owner himself. This may be optimistic. Even during the bike race hotels were offering deals, like oceanfront suites for two nights, including dinner for two each night (with free dinners for children) at $219 total.

Torres is hopping mad about the slaughter of tourism. He’s fighting back with a campaign of his own on local television, in newspapers, in articles and podcasts for the Web, and in YouTube videos from expatriate Americans willing to go on the record about the quality and safety of life along Mexico’s Pacific coast. “It makes me sad and angry at the same time,” says Torres. “I blame the media to begin with, but now I blame the U.S. government for these warnings. If I could sue them, I would.”

But Hummers filled with stern-faced soldiers and .50 caliber machine guns is not the post-card image tourists seek, nor a perception easily changed —unless of course you live in Rosarito. “The military has really made a huge difference,” said Kanoa Biondolillo, co-owner of Baja123 real estate. “There’s been a huge drop in local extortion, you don’t have to bribe the police anymore if they stop you. I’ve never felt safer.”

In 2007, Biondolillo says there were 50 or more real estate offices in Rosarito Beach; today there are 12. “We’ve really gotten beaten up in the American press, people think it’s a war zone, but it’s not. The violence is only in targeted areas, where the cartels are.”

Well, not exactly. Rosarito has had its share of death, particularly late last year when a war broke out between rival factions of the Arrelano drug cartel and when federal, state and city officials cracked down. More than 30 people, mainly cartel members, were killed in Rosarito. Since then Torres has installed a new Tourist Police Force, some 38 uniformed men, to reassure tourists that things are being patrolled. He’s also working with the area’s three key tourist centers, Tijuana, Rosarito Beach and Ensenada, to re-brand the region as “The Baja Coast,” in a $1.6 million marketing campaign.

“We want to let everyone know in California that everything is okay here,” says Torres. But it’s hard to fight the tidal wave of negative news.

“I strongly urge any U.S. investors to stay away from Mexico real estate,” says Nancy Conroy, former editor and publisher of the English language newspaper, Gringo Gazette North. “Basically, northern Baja is under military occupation, there are several narco shootings per day, and tourists are not immune.”

Some 900 miles south, at the tip of the Baja peninsula, the luxury resort area known as Los Cabos, is also suffering the drug backwash. But the issue there is not drug wars, but the kidnapping of the high-end tourist trade, which it has sought the last 10 years.

Los Cabos is Mexico’s top spot for private jet traffic, but this year there’s been a 30% drop, officials say. Passenger airline traffic has “softened” too, according to an Alaska Airline’s spokeswoman, though no figures were given. Alaska, with the most flights, and other airlines are maintaining their schedules, but are using smaller planes to handle the diminished crowds, according to Ella Messerli, vice president of marketing for Los Cabos Visitors and Convention Bureau.

“It’s been a communications challenge for us reminding people we’re a thousand miles away from the trouble,” says Messerli.

Hotels in Los Cabos, with rooms commonly averaging over $400 a night, aren’t lowering rates, but are offering incentives like $400 credits toward airfare, free rental cars, and massages. Messerli says hotel occupancy rates were down just slightly in March, from 80% to 76%, which she attributes to bad press up north, she says.

Others don’t see such a rosy picture.

“This is as bad as I’ve seen it,” says Bill Baffert, director of sales and marketing for Baja Resorts, which operates two hotels in Baja. Baffert has been doing business in southern Baja since 1981. “This is going to be much tougher than after 9/11.”

Baffert estimates business is down 25% from last year, with the only winners being the all-inclusive resorts, which offer rooms, food and entertainment at one price. “Everyone is discounting, even the five star hotels. People are looking at every penny, brand new luxury properties are wholesaling for $50 a night now.”

Lucrative golf rounds have gone south too, down between 30% and 50% this season, according to Greg Tallman, director of golf at Cabo del Sol, considered the “Pebble Beach of Baja.”

“Everyone is terrified to spend money,” says Tallman. “We’re still trying to get a handle on what’s happening; this got way out in front of us. We’re hunkering down now and seeing what can be done if anything for next season.”

Messerli says next season they are going to woo back rich tourists via the Internet, using web-based testimonials, e-mail campaigns, and one-on-one “familiarization trips” for the media and travel specialists. “We want to promote Los Cabos as a value destination now,” she says.

Back in Baja Norte, the bad news isn’t stopping golf superstar Tiger Woods, from building a new luxury oceanfront golf course on the rocky Pacific coastline south of Ensenada, 70 miles below San Diego. Called Punta Brava, the development includes 125 homes, with prices starting at $3 million for a one-acre lot and $3.5 million for a condo. Opening is slated for 2011. The developer is the Flagship Group, whose principals include Red McCombs, co-founder of Clear Channel Communications.

“It’s too difficult to navigate who’s corrupt and who isn’t; everyone is lying,” says the former Gringo Gazette North publisher Conroy. “Basically, many of the developments are gigantic piles of dirt, but the developers have no problem taking your deposits and promising the world. It’s just another Mexican rip-off.”

A few positives have come out this, says Conroy, who has gone back to making a living as a lawyer in Los Angeles. “The military patrols have cut down on carjackings and their presence has slowed real estate sales,” she says. “You can thank the narco wars for preventing more Americans from losing all their money in bad Mexican real estate deals.”

As the drug war rages on, cocaine abuse remains rampant, and relatively few addicts check into a cocaine drug rehab center for treatment.