Events give boost to Baja tourism


ROSARITO BEACH – For 32 surfers from as far as Venezuela and Puerto Rico, last weekend’s Pro-Am Surfing Contest was a chance to vie for $10,000 in prize money. But for Rosarito Beach’s hard-hit tourism industry, the event also was intended to deliver a message that the city is safe for visitors.

From surfing in Rosarito Beach to wine-tasting in the Guadalupe Valley to next month’s Rosarito-Ensenada 50-Mile Bicycle Fun Ride, Baja California’s promoters say staged festivities are key to bringing back U.S. tourists to their state.

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“The best ambassadors that Baja tourism has are people that come down and participate in these events,” said Gary Foster, promoter of the twice-yearly ride, who expects at least 5,000 participants Sept. 26.

The state’s tourism industry suffered record losses last year as it was hit by a combination of factors, including the world economic recession, drug-related violence and clogged border crossings. Earlier this year, Mexican federal government measures to prevent the spread of swine flu dealt a further blow to Baja California tourism, despite the fact that the disease was concentrated in central Mexico.

At a San Diego event this week to promote the Rosarito-Ensenada ride, tourism officials said planned gatherings such as last weekend’s surfing contest and Ensenada’s annual Vendimia, or Wine Harvest Festival, offer hope that the situation can be turned around.

“People are a bit more optimistic now,” said Oscar Kawanishi, director of Proturismo Ensenada, the city’s tourism bureau. He said average hotel occupancy in the city reached 91 percent Saturday, the eve of the closing of the Vendimia, which drew 20,000 people to Ensenada for two dozen events between Aug. 6 and Sunday.

Laura Wong, president of the Rosarito Convention & Visitors Bureau, said hotel occupancy in her city was only 52 percent Saturday. While the surfing contest was not a big tourist draw, the city posted a live webcast of the surfers that drew some 2,000 viewers. “For us it was more the exposure than the amount of people,” Wong said. “It was a good event to prove that Rosarito is a safe city.”

The contest was originally planned for last April as an event sanctioned by the Association of Surfing Professionals, the governing body for the sport. But the association withdrew its support, because reports of crime in the area raised “concern for surfer safety,” said Bobby Shadley, a media officer for the organization.

Rosarito Beach moved to stage the event on its own, contracting with San Diego-based FDt Marketing, inviting professional and amateur surfers to participate in last weekend’s contest.

Zach Plopper, a professional surfer from San Diego who placed fifth, was pleasantly surprised. “The conditions were amazing, the wind was light, the water was crystal clear.”

Still, Plopper said, there remains a stigma associated with traveling to Baja California, “especially among younger surfers, whose parents don’t want them to go.”

A year ago, organizers of the Rosarito Ensenada 50-Mile Fun Bicycle Ride had decided to pull out of Baja California due to the decline in U.S. participants and a lack of support from local authorities. This week, Foster said he was heartened by the support of state tourism authorities.

Ives Lelevier, Baja California’s tourism subsecretary, said yesterday that the state is stepping in with $150,000 to publicize the ride. “This is one of the most important activities that we have in Baja California,” Lelevier said.