Tijuana’s a Hard Sell These Days : But Its Promoters Are Trying to Deal With ‘The Crisis’

Times Staff Writer

Mexico’s reputation as a romantic tourist mecca has not fared well in the United States since the assassination of a U.S. drug enforcement agent and subsequent threats by U.S. officials to issue a travel advisory.

And Tijuana, which has worked hard to change its image from a bawdy border town to a cosmopolitan city, has suffered added setbacks: the U.S. Navy’s imposition last October of a nighttime curfew for visiting sailors and Marines, and in February, a two-week U.S. Customs operation that clogged traffic at the border and caused many tourists to stay away.

Tourism, Baja California’s second-largest industry, has been hurt by the bad press, which local merchants and tourism officials claim is a bad rap.

“We don’t deserve this injustice. We’re neighbors,” said Alfonso Bustamante Jr., president of the Tijuana Tourism and Conventions Bureau. “You can be insulted once or twice and shrug it off, but the time comes when you have to say ‘No more!’ and do something about it.”


To confront what they call “The Crisis,” businessmen and tourism officials are putting together a multimedia advertising campaign to sell “Tijuana of the 80’s” to travel agents, tourists and conventioneers.

For the first time, they have joined forces to coordinate marketing of the city’s main attractions--jai alai, bullfighting, horse and dog racing, and the Centro Cultural, with a museum, Omni theater and soon-to-be-completed performing theater.

And they are touting a new five-star hotel, the Fiesta Americana, owned in part by Bustamante’s father and scheduled to open six of its 24 floors by the end of the month.

Bustamante said he did not know the cost of the campaign because parts of it still are out to bid. But he said the campaign will include three months of radio spots, brouchers in English and Spanish, color posters and a 20-minute video for travel shows and television programs.

Binders will be distributed to 1,500 travel agencies from San Francisco to San Ysidro, with complete lists of the hotels, restaurants, shops, tourist attractions and services in the city.

“We have to fight everything bad they are saying about Mexico,” Bustamante said. “Because of Operation Intercept, we have united.”

Restaurant business dropped 70% and merchants in tourism-related businesses reported that sales dropped 60% during “Operation Intercept,” when U.S. Customs officials intensified vehicle searches at the border, allegedly to look for clues to the disappearance of drug agent Enrique Camarena.

U.S. officials later admitted the two-week operation was meant to pressure Mexico to look for Camarena, whose body was found in the state of Michoacan, nearly 1,600 miles southeast of here.


Pablo Gutierrez Barron, president of the Tijuana Chamber of Commerce, said the worst impact of the Camarena case is over, but he added that tourism businesses report sales still are down about 20%.

Merchants said they do not believe they lost a significant amount of direct business from the Navy’s curfew but they were afraid that the publicity had tarnished the city’s image.

Commodore E. Inman (Hoagy) Carmichael, San Diego Navy base commander, declared the 8 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew after he received increased reports of harassment of military personnel by Tijuana police. The curfew is still in effect.

Gutierrez Barron said the Chamber and tourism bureau have commissioned a survey of tourists to better determine who is visiting Tijuana. Students with questionnaires will interview tourists on Avenida Revolucion, at the San Ysidro border crossing and at other spots Friday through Sunday.


The merchants and restaurateurs want not only to recoup their old customers but also to expand into new markets.

The Fiesta Americana hopes to draw Mexican business people, tourists and conventions of up to 1,200 from the interior of Mexico. Among the other attractions, it offers proximity to “the most important suburb in the world,” said general manager Claude Gautier. Guests will have access to the private Club Campestre golf course, which the hotel overlooks, and to a business center with telex, message and secretarial services. In addition to a convention hall, the hotel has two conference rooms.

The hotel’s managers are convinced they can keep their 420 rooms nearly full, despite rates starting at $70 per night.

Occupancy rates are around 85% at the approximately 1,000 rooms in other first-class hotels in Tijuana, but none is as luxurious as the Fiesta Americana.


The managers believe that Tijuana residents also will use the hotel’s French and Mexican restaurants, discotheque, bar, ice cream parlor and 24-hour coffee shop.

“This is a product that . . . the city needs,” said Gautier. “In the past, corporations and associations wanted to come to Tijuana but they weren’t able to because of the scarcity of facilities.”

Two other large-scale developments also in the works are designed to draw tourists here--a 4 1/2-square-block commercial center and a new convention center in the Tijuana River area.

The commercial center, to be called Villa del Rio, will be a cross between a Mexican-style Seaport Village and Tlaquepaque, the artisan market in Guadalajara. It will be near the eastern end of the San Ysidro border crossing, accessible by foot from the boundary, Bustamante said.


The two-story Mexican colonial-style center, estimated to cost $83.3 million, will be financed by private investors from Guadalajara. Baja California Gov. Xicotencatl Leyva Mortera is scheduled to lay the first brick June 17, Bustamante said.

In addition, a hotel and convention center are slated to be built nearby, between the proposed commercial center and the round Centro Cultural.

Bustamante said that 51% of the convention center’s construction costs will be paid by private investment and that the governor is negotiating with other states to contribute to construction.

The center will include a 2,000-seat meeting hall and a permanent exhibition hall with displays of products from all 32 Mexican states.