Juan Tintos Funcke, Secretary, Baja Tourism
Jill Replogle, KPBS Fronteras Desk reporter
Related Story: Are Tourism Woes For Baja Over?
CAVANAUGH: Baja California officials are hoping that this holiday season revives an old tradition among San Diegans: Heading south. Tijuana and Rosarito beach used to be prime destinations for holiday shopping and celebrating. Then came the drug cartel war and American tourism slowed do you understand to a trickle. Now Mexican officials say Baja is bouncing back. We'll talk about the attractions and the caution that remains about visiting. My guests, Juan Tintos Funcke, the Baja secretary of tourism. Thank you for joining us.
FUNCKE: Thank you very much, good morning.
CAVANAUGH: And KPBS fronteras desk reporter, Jill Replogle.
CAVANAUGH: The biggest story out of Baja has been the ongoing discovery of the remains of up to 100 drug war victims. Their bodies were dissolved in lye. It's a horrific story. And it's your job to sell Baja as a safe and secure place to visit. How do you do that?
FUNCKE: I thought the most important story was the cholos becoming champions of football and soccer in Mexico, which even mayor Filner recognized as a regional team. It is a topic. It's an ongoing topic. But I can tell you from the last time I was here with you almost a year ago, we've made tremendous progress. We did have a very difficult period back in 2007 to 2009. But fortunately since 2011 and especially this year, we've seen a recuperation, a react vationin tourism. And American tourists are starting to come back, and not only the Hispanics but the Anglo also. We have had an increase of American participants in the bike rides, the off-road races, the regattas. We have had the reactivation of the film industry, we just had Robert Redford filming for three months. We have had the most famous chefs in the world coming down there. And Ensenada is the No. 1 cruise ship destination in Mexico, and the increase in arrivals have been mostly Americans. So there is still that aspect of any tourist destination where you have to take certain precautions where you visit any tourist destination in Mexico or abroad. But it's -- we think the perception and the image with major events like having famous people come to Baja and letting them talk about Baja has really helped us.
CAVANAUGH: I want to take you step by step through some of the things that you mentioned about the reasons people are coming back to Baja and Tijuana. But I really have to follow up on this story with the bodies being found. It's really been a huge story. It perks my curiosity into how do you deal with that? This is what people are seeing on their newscasts at the same time that you want them to plan holiday trips to Baja.
FUNCKE: It's the same as when you open the newspaper and you see any crime that took place in any city in the rest of Mexico, the U.S., or the world. I think this is a situation that presented itself. The specific case that you mentioned almost three years ago. It's an ongoing investigation. But we have not had these types of incidents since three years ago. The recognition that we have had from even American authorities. But as I mentioned before, the recognition that we have had from people having the confidence of coming back, having Robert Redford walk through the streets of Tijuana, visit our cultural center, go to a famous spa in Tecate, or having Anthony Bourdain go through Rosarito beach, I think it's helped us. And the thousands of expats that live in Baja that form part of Baja's image committee who helped us to put out the word about the good things happening in Baja. It's something that is not only particular of Tijuana. It's particular of any great major city in Mexico or the U.S. or the word. You have the good news and you have the bad news. When you have much more good news, that's where we focus on.
CAVANAUGH: Even last week, the State Department came out last week and revised its warning to Americans.
FUNCKE: It's two cities. Tijuana and Mexicali. It only states if you go there, take precautions if you go out at night. I tell that to my daughter when they go out anywhere. And it's a recommendation we tell tourists in any city in the world. If you compare the 20th of November travel warning to the ones in 2008, wow! There is a huge, huge difference. And the last one we had before the 20th of November was the 8th of February. If that had had an impact, we wouldn't have had these famous actors coming down, and the increase in sports activities. I think the tourists know if they obey the laws, that go to the wine country or their favorite spot to eat, you know, most of the time they won't encounter any problems. But perception and image is a permanent thing you have to keep working on.
CAVANAUGH: Jill, you cover the border region for the fronteras desk. What are you hearing from people about returning to Baja as a vacation destination, going to Tijuana for shopping, that kind of thing?
REPLOGLE: Well, I think definitely people are starting to go back. I mean, you can't really do better than a story in the New York Times and the New Yorker in one year about how great the food scene is and how the whole region is revitalizing. And then the cholos, there's been a lot of great publicity for Baja California this year, and that's definitely helped. I have friends who hadn't been there for five, six years and now they're going back. They're doing different things, which I think is interesting. They're not going necessarily to party at night. They're not necessarily going to the Revolucion, they're going to the wine region, the Ensenada, or going to some of the fancier restaurants that have been in the news. So that's interesting. But there are still a lot of people who just won't even think about it. And it's because of that image. And a lot of people are just still scared. You look at some of the surveys of people who do go to Baja, they say they feel safe. 80% said they feel safer than they did a few years ago bump those are the people who are going anyway. The people who aren't going are just not going, a lot of them
CAVANAUGH: Not only is this are anecdotal evidence that people are going back to visit, you have the numbers. This is like a continuing upsurge of tourism since about 2008, right?
FUNCKE: Yeah, we had for example the Ensenada to Newport beach regatta, which is one of the oldest boat races in the world. We had an increase of participants this May. The Baja run has been the fourth most number of participants over 300 teams, specifically from over 20 states in the U.S. sports figuring which is an attraction mostly by American tourists is 10% up. This year we are projecting close to 500,000 cruise ship passengers. And the hotel occupancy rate this year is going to be up between 5% and 7%. When you go to the American holiday weekends, we had our best 4th of July, our best memorial day, and our best labor day in seven years.
CAVANAUGH: The recent ino vaDora in Tijuana was a success.
CAVANAUGH: And one of the things that I know was done to try to get San Diegans excited and to take part is to have buses leave San Diego, and you can actually bus people to the site. And I'm wondering, is that a technique that's going to be used more often in tourism conventions and stuff?
FUNCKE: Yeah, it's very important what you mentioned. Because this year we started receiving Chinese tourists that are residents of the LA area and are arriving also from China to Southern California, and they're taking them on one or two buses every weekend to Tijuana, Rosarito beach, and we're going to start working Japanese tourists with a Tokyo/San Diego flight. There was a scouting team that went down to Tijuana and Rosarito and Puerto nuevo, and they went through the wine country. So that alternative is great. And we have a border crossing to show you have. 22 lanes instead of 11. It was a big success with the participants for the bahan 1,000 off-road race. So yes, the bus transportation aspect is very important because it's an option. A lot of people say, well, I like to go in the wine country and obviously drink some wine and not necessarily drive back. So yes, that has been working for us from 15-passenger vans to 29-passenger buses all wait to 50-passenger buses.
CAVANAUGH: And jill, do you find it easy to get around? That's your beat, so is it easy for someone who doesn't go down there as much as you do to follow the signage and to figure out locations and so forth?
REPLOGLE: It's easier to quiet down there than it is to come back.
[ LAUGHTER ]
REPLOGLE: I can tell you that. You go across the border, it's easy to get on the one that takes you to Ensenada or get to the wine country. Getting through Tijuana on that side is pretty easy. The new crossing is great. But when you come back, that's where it gets confusing! And there is signage, and I think that the city is always working on it. With there's always some new way of getting around. But it is confusing. I have a friend who just came back from the wine country. She had a fantastic time, but she got lost in Tijuana, and ended up in Otay Mesa.
FUNCKE: That's one of the topics we're working on, installation of more signage. Upon when you come in and go to the river district area or south to Rosarito beach and Ensenada. But at the same time when you come back, we have had some difficulties because of the construction of the new border crossing also when you come north. But again we've been waiting for that border crossing for 40 years. So I think we can bear the grunt until it's ready. But we're working on the signage and other aspects because a lot of people do have much more requirements to come back than they do to come into Baja.
CAVANAUGH: Go ahead, jill.
REPLOGLE: I was just going to jump in on the buses. I do think that that's a way that a lot of people are starting to go back, if there are bus tours. And I've had people ask me, we want to go to the wine country, are there some tours? And I'll do some searching on the web of people who used to do tours but don't do them anymore. And there are still some. Of but I wish there were more.
REPLOGLE: I think a lot of people are scared to drive down either because they don't speak Spanish or they're worried about getting lost. But they'll go with a group. And there's a guy who runs a business called tourista libre, and he takes people on these crazy trips, and people love them! But he's one guy.
FUNCKE: And they do the taco tours also.
[ LAUGHTER ]
REPLOGLE: Right. But I wish there were more options.
FUNCKE: I think it's going to be a trend that's going to be growing more.
CAVANAUGH: You noted a big increase in the cruise ships, the number of people taking cruises to Baja. One of the reasons, when some of the cruise ships decided to discontinue was not simply the violence that was going on back in the day but they said once you made the trip once, there wasn't any compelling reason to go back for a second or third time. What are you doing to increase the number of attractions in Baja so that it will be attractive to return visits on the cruise lines?
FUNCKE: It was very important last year, governor Osewna invaded Michele page who is the president of the Caribbean cruise ship association and her council, they visited Ensenada, and we were very happy that right off the bat she said we don't see your port as insecure. We think Ensenada is safe for tourists. What we do need to work more on is added attractions, more than just going to the blow hole, more than just going to the wine country or shopping in Ensenada. We built a new 48 million peso wine museum. It's becoming a favorite spot of the cruise ship people. We have around 15 new excursions about to be reviewed by one of the cruise ship lines so that we can offer them different attractions. Here's the catch. About 70% of the passengers that go on cruise ships to Ensenada are from the LA area and surroundings. So we're inviting them to come back by land. And that's something that Cabo, Mazatlan can't do because it would be a very long drive! But if you liked Ensenada for eight or 12 hours, we're going to start giving them in January a discount card when they come back. So you can imagine, we're going to print half a million discount cards. But we think these people will be more than willing to come back by land and also visit other places as you go down, like Tijuana and Rosarito beach.
CAVANAUGH: One last question, there is a big convention center for Baja that's going to be opening next year.
FUNCKE: Yes! That's our crown jewel. It's a convention center with an ocean front view. No, we're not going to compete with the San Diego Convention Center. But this is going to help us a great deal because Tijuana has 150 flights a day, it's the second-best connected airport in Mexico, just second to Mexico City. Convention tourism is on the rise. And this center has been a major project of the governor, and I think it's really, really going to help us to put us on the map regarding the convention. And if Comic-Con wants a postconvention event, we'll be more than happy to welcome them down there!
[ LAUGHTER ]
FUNCKE: But I think it's great progress with a renovated airport as well.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.