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Rethinking Baja Tourism

As published in the San Diego Daily Transcript

Vince Vasquez

Thursday, June 4, 2009

This past Saturday, downtown San Diego played host to an unusual international culinary convention, as Mexican elected officials joined restaurateurs and business owners to present the finest flavors and tastes from Baja. More out-of-the-box thinking will be required if our southern neighbor is to emerge in a new era of border relations.

Entitled “Baja by the Sea,” the free event at the Embarcadero Marina Park North brought out thousands of San Diegans interested in wine tastings, dishes, and business ventures hailing from the coastal region. For many, it was an opportunity to be reintroduced to the culturally rich nation at our doorstep, and savor the traditional tastes of Mexican cuisine that are too often found homogenized and diluted for the Western palate in the United States. Though Mexican cities have been avid promoters of their local events and festivals, this new approach of bringing the best of Baja to San Diego was a successful outreach effort to prospective tourists and customers that haven’t crossed the border in some time. Praise is deserving of Baja California Governor José Guadalupe Osuna Millán and Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos, who were on hand with the Mayors of Mexicali, Rosarito, Ensenada and Tecate to showcase and support their region, and to the Port of San Diego and Baja tourism boards who sponsored the occasion.

Baja by the Sea was a bright spot for a region that has been unfairly swamped by negative news headlines, evoking fear and hysteria from the international community. The recent dramatic drug-related violence has been largely a response to the successful efforts of Mexican law enforcement officials to crack down on the illegal drug trade and capture key cartel leaders over the last decade, spurring volatility and brutal power grabs among the criminal hierarchy. Frenzied media reports over the “swine flu” and its supposed Mexican origins were proven to be overblown this year, as the 117 confirmed global deaths to date failed to produce the speculated worldwide pandemic, and pale in comparison to the fact that the regular seasonal flu kills up to half a million people each year. But the subsiding of the health hysteria did not come before Chinese government officials indiscriminately detained and quarantined Mexican nationals this spring, and one San Diego congressman calling for the White House to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border to protect Americans from the “serious threat” of swine flu. Few have come forward to reproach these damaging public overreactions that have had a powerful psychological effect on whether tourists visit Mexico, which in the Baja region has seen a decline of American visitors for years.

According to statistics from the Tijuana Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, the total number of estimated Americans crossing the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa Ports of Entry (including U.S. citizens living in Baja and working in San Diego) in 2008 was 42% below 2004 figures. More recently, the total American border crossings in the first three months of 2009 are fewer than at the same time last year. This bleak trend may be compounded by new U.S. border crossing requirements beginning this week for passports and new identification cards to be used by visitors to Mexico and Canada in order to re-enter the country. Whether these new security demands will negatively impact tourism remains to be seen, but they should give urgency to Mexican officials to adopt innovative strategies to marketing tourism and foreign investment opportunities to their U.S. neighbors.

With Baja by the Sea the first attempt at a new annual event, Baja promoters should weigh the merits of establishing a permanent showroom in San Diego for residents to experience and learn about regional fare and visitor destinations. Consider the success of the San Diego Wine & Culinary Center, established in 2005 to present the “bounty of the county,” highlighting the many boutique wineries and agricultural products that are grown regionally and too often, unknowingly. Nestled across the San Diego Convention Center, the Culinary Center doubled in size in 2007, and continues to host fun and educational gastronomic events for tourists and locals alike in a wine tasting room environment. A downtown Baja Wine & Culinary Center could showcase the dozens of vineyards that thrive in a rich, Mediterranean-like climate along a charming countryside that evokes memories of Napa County before its mass commercialization. Most Baja wineries are small, family-owned operations that produce 5,000 or less cases per year, and could benefit from the exposure, especially to those who have been hesitant of visiting the Baja region. Michelle Martain, whose family owns the outstanding Cavas Valmar Winery in Ensenada, favored the idea of a full-time tasting room in San Diego. “We try to promote our products through events, but if there was an opportunity for something like the San Diego Wine & Culinary Center it would be wonderful; there is so much to proudly offer,” said Martain.

Though the San Diego-Baja economy is trudging through tough economic times, our outlook is stronger from changing perceptions and adopting innovative approaches to bi-national tourism. Martain is optimistic about the future of the Baja region, as “there is a lot to discover in Baja, sometimes the news dramatizes what is really going on. Don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy wines and excellent food in a magical environment!”