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Mexican Officials Working To Lure U.S. Tourists To Baja

Mexican officials are working to lure American tourists back to Baja, California.
GUESTJuan Benjamin Tintos Funcke, Baja California Secretary of Tourism

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Coming up, Baja California's tourism is pulling out all the stops and some movie stars to attract Americans south of the border. And we hear from Mexican poet Alberto Blanco. It is 12:20 and you are listening to KPBS Midday Edition. This is KPBS Midday Edition, I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Heading south of the border to shop for the holidays or taking a New Year's vacation relaxing at a Baja Beach. Those are things San Diego used to enjoy as a tradition but for the past several years years of drug cartel violence have kept people away from Tijuana and Baja California. The Mexican tourism Bureau is trying to change that with a new campaign aimed at convincing Americans that Baja is safe again. But the message still faces an uphill battle with some people. Joining me to talk about the campaign and security in Mexico is my guest. Juan Tintos Funcke is Baja California Sec. of tourism and Secretary welcome to the show and thank you for coming in today. JUAN TINTOS FUNCKE: Thank you and thank you for having us. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How has Baja California suffered for the past three years for violence and fears of violence? JUAN TINTOS FUNCKE: Well in 2007 and 2008 is probably the more challenging years we faced as a state. Fortunately the situation now has changed very much for the better. The model that was used in Baja California by Gov. José Osuna Millan has been taken as an example for other states in the country and includes various actions but above all coordination between all levels of government. And that has enabled us to recuperate if you can call it like that, the state, and made the tourism industry that went down in personages from 40 to 60%, 70% in certain types of tourists especially to have it is 2011 here, we have a 5% increase in tourism compared to last year and the best numbers to show since 2008. We have more tourists coming. We have a higher hotel occupancy rate. We have Mark reshapes arising in Ensenada, more participants in our events, the bike rides and off-road races. We just finished a new Hollywood movie address reduce studios and Rosarito Beach and we will announce a new one in January and curiously enough we formed an image committee which its most active members are ex-pats. After our members it's about 50,000 American citizen living full or part-time and Baja. A lot of former CEOs, NFL players and people that have come down for a second home or condominium or even established businesses. And they join forces with us. We've made excellent relationship with the ex-pats and other people who go down there like famous off-road racers or movie stars that have helped us put out the word gradually. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me stop you there if I may for a moment and just go back to where you were a couple years ago because numbers to really tell the whole picture. What was it like? What was it like when tourism was don't like that? Did you have empty hotels? JUAN TINTOS FUNCKE: Yes. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Were there shopkeeperss and hotels struggling here, what was it like? JUAN TINTOS FUNCKE: I think it was a big challenge not only for Baja California but for Mexico in general because we were facing new scenarios and we were facing elements that maybe we had seen before but not combined in the same time. Even when we had the situation of the influenza, the economy and the perception, the image because of the violence and insecurity, but what really impacted us is that you have to remember that many years before when we faced difficult economic times it was always on our part. One of the biggest challenges this time around was to recognize that our main provider of tourists which is the US and specifically California was facing situations of the economy and it took took some time but I think our tourism sector finally recognized and but it was really tough times and situations in hotels or events even, the participation in events like to give you an example the Rosarito to Ensenada bike ride used to have 10,000 participants on average both in April in September it went down to 2000, 2500. Fortunately we got it back to almost 6000 this past one in September. The off-road races which is another indicator where we used to have 275 teams went down to about 180. This past Baja 1000 off-road race in November we had close to 300 and from 18 states in the USA and from 15 countries. So it's been a gradual recuperation, but it's not like we are out of the woods yet. We are in the process and I think the most important progress that we've reached is recognizing the need to innovate, they need to do different statistics, different strategies and even the federal government level, because I talked this with the secretary of tourism of Mexico, Gloria Guevara Manzo, a very brilliant woman and when we met for the first time in October of 2010 you know she asked me you know you've been in office before, what's the difference this time in the first thing I told her was this different combination of scenarios and factors in the economy and the need to revamp the Mexican tourism model that was being used for the traditional just publicity. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. I want to remind our audience in speaking with secretary Juan Tintos. He is the Baja California Sec. of tourism. Tell our audience if you perfect if you could remind our audience of some of the things that Baja California has to offer travelers. JUAN TINTOS FUNCKE: I think our status probably the most unique one in Mexico regarding tourism offer because for example we have the most numerous calendar of events in Mexico. We have over 300 events a year. We have food festivals, bike rides, off-road races, regattas and we've had new events that have coming because of the really popularity that the Baja med cuisine has represented. We have that great cuisine also that we have, which has attracted renowned chefs like Rick Bayless, and filled his programming Baja. And we also received tourism lectureships from Los Angeles, from Long Beach and contrary to other places in Mexico the cruise ships in Ensenada maintained itself. We are going to have about 175 arrivals so a lot of people like to visit Ensenada now by way of cruise ships. We've got Disney to come in for the first time ever to come into the first time ever they are going to do 10 trips this year and when you have over 1000 km and ocean like we have you have a lot of people like to come in for sports fishing which is also up 18% this year those are mostly Anglo-American select two, and sports fishing, like it's not essentially bailed the see of Cortez side a lot of people like to come and like to come in come for tourism and medical procedures (inaudible) that million a year 90% of those people from California and they like to come to Baja to the clinics and hospitals because they are much lower priced and oh, by the way the doctors and specialists are mostly California or US graduates from universities although there may be Mexican doctors. Even Tijuana, which has the number one spot in the world and Rancho La Puerta a lot of people like to come down for that. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And in many ways as you've been describing to us by Baja California is coming back from a low period. From a couple years ago but as I said in the introduction it is still an uphill battle to convince a lot of people that they should feel safe enough to go down to Baja California again. What is being done to keep tourists safe? JUAN TINTOS FUNCKE: Well another of the unique things is that our state is the only one in Mexico that has a tourist assistance department that works 24 hours a day every day of the year zero 78 tourist assistance line that you can call and ask for anything like from the weather, information on events, or it is all selected consumer affairs office. If you feel that you are in price writer you encounter some type of difficulty with the reservation or in some type of situation with a government official you can always call that we also have the green angels which is a tourist assistance patrol, 15 of them to go through the state because a lot of the tourists and Baja are transporting himself, removing from one tourist destination to another by land and one of the things that we talked about the federal secretary of tourism was to innovate and we created the Baja image committee which is its most important members are ex-pats, Americans who are living abroad that are helping us put out the word that things are much better, that we just finished a movie from production movie in the studios and that we have another one coming and they've got out on testimonials, we produce videos he blasting a lot of, we just had the beginning of the year Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren visit the studios, or we have Jesse James, everybody hates him because he is divorcing Sandra Bullock, but he is an avid off-road racer and comes down and he has his followers. And people like actor Patrick Dempsey who always comes to our off-road races or famous chefs, those are the things that we weren't doing before. And instead of going necessarily and saying my destination is safer because of this or that, that's part of the new strategy that even the federal government is using like the taxi diary project. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to talk about that in a minute. But you know people read in San Diego they read stories like earlier this year the Tijuana police chief was dismissed, the murder rate was going up again. I think you are on track to having Tijuana 400 Murders the way you had last year, that is still really pretty high-end I'm wondering how closely do you work with mayors and police forces in Baja to impress on them the importance of security for tourists? JUAN TINTOS FUNCKE: Well we were pretty close to because tourism for us is very important. It impacts 27 different sectors of our economy as a state of Baja California. They are a part of this image committee also. We have worked with them for example with the Mayor's office they've all put in place bilingual police sections so they can patrol the tourism areas. Incidents regarding tourists or tourists being targeted by violence and crimes is not a factor in Baja California. We were so happy that Gov. or Osuna, she (inaudible) and Caribbean cruise ship Association in April when she came down and toward Ensenada she said you don't have a problem with security produced like other parts of Mexico where we've gone out, you guys are good. What we need to do is do better marketing because even lots of cruiseship lines have gone through the economic crunch and we are reorganizing the cruise ship packages and we were very happy to find out about that and give us give us approval to say something. We have the board of governors come the US Board of Governors conference at the end of September in Ensenada and death state prosecutor like the governor of Mexico to as governor Osuna saying I can my husband and I stay for the weekend and Rosarito Beach because you know we want to take a walk on the beach and eat lobster important a way for those are the little things that give us a lot of incentive to go on ahead. But it is I think the difference of Baja California to other parts of Mexico is the coordination the governor Osuna has generated. Of course it helps to only have five counties instead of 500 like in Oaxaca. And the court nation and the recognition that not only foreign, but a national tourists is very important for Baja California because a lot of people don't know the Tijuana's international airport is the fourth busiest in Mexico but it is the second better communicated to the rest of Mexico just after the Mexico City airport. It is going to a $35 million reconstruction. It is an international airport but we receive a lot of Mexican tourists. A lot of business, a lot of the hotels and Tijuana and Mexicali, we have increases in hotel occupancy rates but it's also do a lot to Mexican businessman that are coming back from the rest of Mexico. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you two quick questions it is because Baja is trying to come back from a slump. Should American tourists expect lower prices? JUAN TINTOS FUNCKE: Oh yes, that is one of the things. I came back to office last October. I've been Sec. October before from 1992 to 2001 and today is my 18th trip that I take to Bob to California or Nevada or whatever Arizona I remember the first one that I took back in October of last year and when I brought people from the tourism sector, hotel people and I saw the tour packages prices they were way up. We were higher than Palm Springs, then Hawaii or even Miami. And that some of the things that are tourism sector I think recognized was the need to be more competitive with better prices, with better quality and better marketing. And I think that's one of the major steps that are tourism sector has taken. So you can find like right now for the closing of the year, five-star hotel rooms going from $65 to luxury suites to $250 that part of Puerto Nuevo lobster or the Baja med cuisine restaurants with specials. A lot of them are catering to New Year's parties or reservations. The spas and it took your Ensenada even the US buyer is buyer is an question is looking for bargains I think that's one of the major steps that we've taken. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: For we in San Diego, we sometimes don't want to go into Tijuana because of traffic and the long border waits. Is there anything being done to address that? JUAN TINTOS FUNCKE: Well finally after 30 years we are having a new border crossing being built. And it's the typical thing when you have a major project. Is a typical sign that says sorry for the delays but we are building a new border crossing. We are ecstatic in Baja California that we have major projects that we had been going after for decades. We are building a new border crossing between Tijuana and San Ysidro Another one between Mexicali and Calexico which is going to help our state capital a great deal. There's a huge investment on the federal government part of the roots about California highways and freeways. We are building a New Convention Ctr., Metropolitan convention Center between Rosarito Beach and Tijuana right in front of the beach. That's going to help us a great deal with the convention market in Mexico. And like I was commenting to you before basically a new international airport in Tijuana. So there's a lot of investment, a lot of effort being done in that sense. But above all the attitude. I think it is essential that our people have adopted this attitude of being more competitive. Thus emphasizing in quality. We say in Baja the best promotion is a satisfied tourist. Because that's the one that goes back and tells on average he talks about his experience to three people, but a bad experience he will share with seven. So we're doing a lot of things for the border crossing to alleviate the waits, the medical pass for anybody going down you have a special lane for medical tourists. The ready lane, the Sentry Lanes and more transportation between the border and Revolution Avenue or the shopping area or the restaurant district as we call it in the river development area. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That word-of-mouth they are talking about is what the hidden camera video Mexico taxi project is talking but you can see a series of them on YouTube where people return from their recent visit to Mexico and they told the taxi driver who has a hidden camera in his taxi about their trip and of course the people in these videos are always extremely pleased with their time in Mexico. I'm just wondering, Secretary Tintos, you are so involved in this and you speak so well he speaks well of Baja and the fact that it's secure and you have so much to offer just wondering what was that like for you when you see a headline that is negative for to one or for Baja. It must really just make you think, gosh I still have so much work to do. JUAN TINTOS FUNCKE: Well the fact is that since I studied this field many years ago and in the years that I was before Sec. of tourism something that I've learned is that tourism is an activity, if the phenomenon that because it is practiced by humans, we are all impacted and sometimes we feel something that will excite us and make us go there or on the other hand, make us think about it twice going to a tourist destination. In tourism you always have to be monitoring your strategies, your destinations, how you are perceived. And again, we don't, I personally don't feel like we are alone in the world because many tourist destinations in Mexico and the US for that sense or other parts of the world go through what we are going through. And tourism is an industry that can be impacted by a sin Tommy, by a terrorist attack or even by food poisoning or national disasters. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Or flu like you said. JUAN TINTOS FUNCKE: Or the influenza. It is an economic activity but a very unique phenomenon and one of the things we've learned this time around is to be more innovative, be more creative and don't come out openly regarding certain topics such as security, but have other people give indirectly the sense of security because they are saying well, if Stallone goes down, drinks the water and drink some margarita and eats lobster or if they filled a major picture in the studios and another one is coming in January, things must be better if they are going down there. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have been speaking with Baja California Sec. of tourism Juan Tintos Funcke and Secretary Tintos, thank you so much for speaking with us. JUAN TINTOS FUNCKE: Thank you thank you so much for this opportunity and just to let you know that we are there. Baja California is back and going through a very very exciting period.

Heading south of the border to shop for the holidays or taking a New Year's vacation at a Baja Beach are activities many San Diegans used to enjoy as a tradition. But for the past several years, fears of drug cartel violence have kept people away from Tijuana and Baja California.

The Mexican tourism bureau is trying to change that with a new campaign aimed at convincing Americans that Baja is safe and fun. But the message still faces an uphill battle.

What is Baja?