Baja California tour operator Turista Libre regularly offers a couple of enticing Tijuana excursions that allow visitors to experience a gastronomic sampling of ethnic foods or, if they prefer, a close-up look at the U.S.-Mexico border itself, including prototypes for President Trump’s hoped-for border wall.
Trouble is, there are few, if any, takers these days for the weekend tours that sell for about $60.
As news of growing tensions surrounding the migrant crisis in Tijuana builds and fears of potential border crossing shutdowns persist, tourism in Baja California is taking a big hit.
Getting a table at popular celebrity chef-helmed restaurants is not a problem, occupancies at hotels from Tijuana to Ensenada are tumbling, and doctor and dentist offices that rely heavily on San Diego-area patients are reporting cancellations that have led to a drop-off in medical tourism business of as high as 70 percent.
“What we’ve been experiencing is on par with the rest of the businesses across the border, about a 50 to 60 percent decrease since the caravans (from Central America) began arriving and since it’s been front and center,” said Derrik Chinn, a former San Diego journalist who started Turista Libre about a decade ago to give visitors a way to experience Mexico like an insider. He says he has lost about $4,000 to $5,000 in business so far and has had to cancel five tours planned for the last two weekends.
“At first, it was alarming to me but it reminded me of why Turista Libre came to be, to allow people to change their minds about how sensationalized Tijuana had become. My concern is how long will it take for this ripple effect to subside. Aside from the border shutdown last Sunday, things in the city seem pretty normal … if only people would sign up for tours.”
Among visitors’ greatest fears, say the owners of tourist-friendly businesses, are potentially huge delays at border crossings or being trapped in Mexico should there be another hours-long shutdown at the border like the one that occurred last Sunday at the San Ysidro crossing.
A tweet at the time by Trump threatening more border shutdowns because of asylum-seeking migrants has only exacerbated fears.
Even before that, Chinn’s company started receiving emails from clients reluctantly canceling reservations because of what they were hearing about tensions at the border.
“I think I need to pull the plug on this,” one person wrote about plans for an upcoming private tour. “I don’t want to, but about 30% of my staff has backed out due to the border situation. I’ll for sure be back (have done your tour twice now and loved it), but just don’t think this time it’s going to work out.”
“I had been monitoring things, but had no idea the caravan would arrive at Tijuana this quickly,” wrote another. “We are beyond disappointed, but obviously would like to schedule this for another time.”
While Baja California is returning to record levels of tourism, the latest short-term slump is a reminder that the region is not invulnerable to outside forces, most notably the violent criminal activity that has previously dampened visitation to Mexico.
San Diego’s cruise industry is a perfect example. Although it is rebounding, it suffered enormously several years ago when reports of violent crimes near Mexican Riviera destinations discouraged cruise ships from scheduling itineraries in the area, and some ships left completely.
Baja California is coming off of two of its most successful years for tourism, notes Ives Lelevier, undersecretary of tourism for the region. Last year the state welcomed 27 million visitors, he said, up from 25 million the year before.
But news of the waves of Honduran immigrants has depressed hotel occupancies, with rates down an average of 16 percent for Baja California over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend compared to the same period a year earlier, according to the tourism ministry. The decline ranged from just 4 percent in Mexicali to 33 percent in San Felipe, the tourism ministry reported.
“What we’ve been doing for the last 10 days is providing visitors with information on our website on what’s going on with the border crossings and the airports,” Lelevier said. “We’re trying to be very honest and objective so visitors can plan ahead.
“Sometimes people don’t have the proper perspective, and it is difficult for them to know it’s a very specific part of the city where the migrants are, and that the rest of the city is business as usual.”
Antonio Gamboa, owner of a well-known food truck park in Tijuana, says you would never know there are thousands of migrants encamped in the city if you were to visit his Telefonica gastro park, yet business there is down 30 percent.
Offerings of vegan carne asada tacos, seared tuna platters, ramen, poke and micro beers regularly entice American visitors, but fears of more border shutdowns or long waits crossing back into San Diego have discouraged visits, he said.
“We rely heavily on tourists over here at the gastro park because a lot of people tend to their medical needs in Tijuana, and we have a lot of locals from San Diego who know us, and they want the best Mexican food so they come over to us because it’s in a very nice, safe spot in Tijuana,” Gamboa said of his 4-1/2-year-old downtown Tijuana operation. “It’s very disappointing because everything is normal in Tijuana, and it’s a very isolated area where the migrants are.”
Similarly, well-known restaurateur and chef Javier Plascencia has seen holiday party cancellations at his signature gourmet restaurant, Mision 19, and slowing business at his family’s most popular eatery, Caesar’s, where open tables are a rarity. Both restaurants are in Tijuana.
Two small boutique hotels that Plascencia runs in the Valle de Guadalupe wine region, however, remain unaffected, he says, by what is going on at the Tijuana border.
“I think savvy travelers who know Baja are coming through Otay or Tecate (border crossings),” he said. “We had a good amount of tourists in Valle de Guadalupe last weekend but they are regulars and know their way around.”
Tours to the more distant Valle de Guadalupe, about a 1-1/2-hour drive from Tijuana, have in fact been much less affected, said Fernando Gaxiola, owner of the travel concierge company Baja Wine + Food, which also organizes culinary visits to Tijuana.
He is being cautious, just the same, in organizing his December excursions to the valley. He is planning them so that the final winery visits of the day are located in the northeastern part of the valley, making it easier for the tour groups to return to the U.S. via the Tecate port of entry.
“I have no requests for trips to Tijuana. No one wants to go, but for the Valle, we’re scheduling lots of trips,” Gaxiola said. “People are asking about the situation, they’re asking is it good timing. We let them know there is no reason yet to stop traveling. And during the weekend, the border waits have been minimal because no one is crossing.”
Meanwhile, the Rosarito Beach Hotel, long popular with Baja California-bound American tourists, has seen its business plummet by 60 percent, said owner Hugo Torres. The hotel has sought to counter news reports with reassuring emails to its thousands of past customers, but Torres worries that visitors will be reluctant to return.
“We’re sending word that everything is back to normal as far as crossing the border, but we cannot guarantee it (a closure) won’t happen again,” Torres said. “Mexicans are going across (to San Diego) like crazy for the specials at Macy’s and other stores, so for the businessmen in San Diego it’s back to normal 100 percent.
“But we are suffering. People are afraid to come over and get trapped going home.”
That apparently is also the thinking behind many of the cancellations medical offices are seeing in recent weeks.
In order to make up for lost business as patients cancel consultations and surgeries, members of the Tijuana medical association announced Friday they would be offering discounts and benefits for local and U.S. patients. The group also plans to connect with tourism authorities on both sides of the border to secure additional discounts in restaurants and hotels in Tijuana and other Baja California municipalities.
Georgina Carabarin, a Tijuana prosthodontist, said she has seen a significant decline in her business since the arrival of Central American migrants. As many as 70 percent of her patients come from San Diego, she said.
“Right now, we’re hoping everything goes back to normal,” she said. “On the news, they keep saying there are more people coming, so some patients are saying let’s wait for the situation to cool down and then we’ll set up another appointment later.”
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