Tijuana Uses P.R. Firm to Polish Image

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an effort to shed a Wild West reputation that has lured generations of Americans here to drink and carouse, Tijuana and its neighboring Baja California towns have turned to a U.S. public relations firm.

Taking their cue from more polished tourist destinations such as Las Vegas, local business and government leaders here hope to give the region a new, upscale, family-friendly image to attract a more well-heeled--and well-behaved--brand of tourist.

In the 18 months since Mexican government agencies and Baja business associations hired an American public relations firm for this purpose, the company claims credit for having planted dozens of stories in U.S. newspapers and magazines and on television shows touting the fine dining establishments, spas, museums and family-friendly events of Tijuana and nearby beach towns.

And for those journalists who still can't resist Tijuana's rougher edges, Baja's public relations team is taking note. In some cases, it is exerting pressure to soften negative coverage.

The idea, said Sigfredo Pineda, manager of the Tijuana Tourism Trust, is to dispel the notion of Tijuana as a center of violence and corruption--"the black legend of Tijuana," as he calls it.

"We want tourism that is more interested in shopping and artisan products," he said. "Tourists with more interest in the cultural and historic things."

The effort follows several others on both sides of the border over the years to crack down on teenage drinkers. Now, officials and tourism business want to get beyond the phenomenon they disparage as los de a dolar. That means, roughly, "by the dollar" tourists who cross the border with just enough cash for a night of hard drinking.

"The type of people who were coming down were not the type we wanted: The type who would buy wrought-iron furniture here," said Gabriela Castillo, marketing director for Las Rocas Resort and Spa south of Rosarito.

The bar scene has always been a part of the local culture, of course. At least as far back as the 1930s, Americans headed south of the border to escape Prohibition, said Mariano Escobedo, executive of the Tijuana Tourism Trust.

These days, Mexican officials say, the average Tijuana tourist spends only a disappointing $30 or so per day. The vast majority don't stay overnight, and many don't even eat in a restaurant.

In fact, tourists' wanderings tend to be confined to the nightclubs along the Revolucion strip. Promoters have made the publication of new tourist maps a priority in an attempt to convince visitors the city does have more than one street.

Beyond this, promoters hope to encourage more families to come on road trips, stay longer, attend festivals and spend more money. Such image revisionism is not unprecedented: In recent years, Las Vegas, similarly dogged by a reputation for vice, has remade its image through shrewd promotion.

Baja's tourism interests would like to counter a handful of high-profile incidents in which Americans have met with trouble with Mexican authorities.

The Mexican government has been criticized by U.S. officials for delaying medical care after accidents involving American tourists and, more recently, for the arrest of an elderly man with health problems who obtained pharmaceuticals in Mexico.

Mexican officials respond that about 25,000 Americans may cross the border into the country on popular holiday weekends, and that very few encounter problems. But some critics remain skeptical. "I think they are extremely uncooperative. I don't care how good a P.R. firm they have, going to Tijuana is just not safe. Period," said San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn.

Money pooled from a five-year-old hotel tax, and supplemented by Baja business interests, has made the new promotional efforts possible. There are new Web sites, brochures and, most recently, the $100,000 yearly contract with the public-relations firm, Matthews/Mark of San Diego.

Matthews/Mark's role "is to combat a number of misrepresentations and stereotypes about them," said Scott McGaugh, the company's executive vice president.

Juan Tintos Funcke, Baja tourism secretary, went further: "We want people to know that if you are basing your decision to come here on the hours of bars or [the drinking age], don't come," he said.

Working with Baja officials, the firm has tried to educate tourists on safety--urging them to abide by local rules and secure proper insurance. It has also hosted numerous U.S.-based travel reporters on tours to the area, often paying their way.

The firm tracks media exposure and applies a value to it based the cost of the same space in advertising fees, McGaugh said. By this measure, he claims Baja has received $12 million worth of free exposure in the last three months. Articles have appeared in such publications as Conde Nast Traveler and Better Homes and Gardens, he said.

"They have had an image problem for a long time," said Automobile Club travel writer David Brackney, who has just completed a Baja guidebook, with some help from promoters. "Any time an American gets into trouble down there, it tends to resonate."

Business owners in Tijuana said times are still tough. Hotels remain largely dependent on Mexican travelers, and per-tourist spending remains flat, tourism officials said.

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