Baja tourist bid enters crisis mode


TIJUANA – With cross-border visits showing marked declines, business and tourism officials in Baja California are going into full-scale damage control in hopes of regaining ground lost over the past year.

“The image of the security problem has hit the state very badly,” said Baja California’s tourism secretary, Oscar Escobedo Carignan.
At a news conference yesterday at state government offices in Tijuana, Escobedo described a new program aimed at luring visitors back.

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The program, called “Get Your Passport,” offers discounts at hotels, restaurants, bars and shops to those holding a U.S. passport.

On the promotional posters and other materials being printed for the campaign are the words, “Come Back!”

Escobedo also told reporters that the state was contracting with a public relations firm to help Baja California deal with what he termed “crisis management.”

The problem lies in a major falloff of visitors driving to Baja California from the United States. Escobedo said there were 1.5 million fewer visitors in 2007 than in 2006.

“We have over 80,000 people who are U.S. citizens who live in Baja California. They are aware of what the situation is, and we don’t have any problem with those people,” Escobedo said. “The problem is with people who do not understand the border.

“It’s a challenge and we’re working on it.”

Escobedo said the region has suffered a significant blow to its image with reports of organized crime and violence in Baja California, as well as of robberies and assaults on foreign tourists in the last year.

That image wasn’t helped by news videos broadcast around the world showing a 3½-hour gunbattle last week between Mexican police and soldiers and gunmen believed loyal to the Arellano Félix drug cartel. Six bodies of presumed kidnap victims were found in a house after the shooting ended.

Escobedo insisted that stepped-up patrols along what he termed “secure routes” between Tijuana and Ensenada had taken hold, and that no additional highway banditry had been reported since Nov. 17.

“This is something that will be permanent by the state and federal government, and we feel confident that this will not be an issue anymore,” Escobedo said.

Escobedo said that people who view Baja California as a dangerous, crime-ridden region do so because of what he described as heavily repeated news accounts of robberies and assaults. He said that the coverage gives the impression that the incidents are more frequent and recent than they actually are.

“If my children go to school in the United States, I’m not going to pull them out just because of Columbine,” Escobedo said.

The long waits at the ports of entry to return to the United States present more of an impediment to travel, he said. Escobedo also insisted that with the Mexican federal government beginning to take a hard line against organized crime, the region’s image would improve.

“We are going through a maturing process, and we’re not going to put up with this anymore,” he said.

The “Get Your Passport” program begins as the region braces for U.S. border-crossing rules that take effect Jan. 31. The rules require U.S. citizens to show proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate, naturalization papers or a passport, to re-enter the United States through any land crossing. Some businesses fear the rules will further hurt tourism.