TIJUANA – Marcos Rojas, a waiter at Mr. Tequila Restaurant, roams the Plaza Viva Tijuana, eager to pour double shots for partying tourists. This downtown gateway used to be crowded with Southern California day-trippers, Midwestern families and busloads of German and Japanese tourists.
But empty bars and shuttered businesses now outnumber people mingling near the broken fountain. Rojas, who earns tips by making a show of slamming tequila shots on the table and pouring them down customers’ throats, says it’s been a week since he performed one of his signature tricks, twirling a tourist on his shoulders.
“Look around, it’s dead,” he said.
In the sleepy plaza, down the lonely pedestrian promenade leading to the heart of the tourist district on Avenida Revolucion, bored waiters and strip club hawkers compete for the trickle of customers, while old-time merchants wax nostalgic for the days when a downtown dotted with attractions drew millions of visitors, including the occasional Hollywood star.
Tijuana’s recent wave of violence appears to have driven another nail into the coffin of a tourism industry already hobbled by its reputation for tacky tourist traps and rowdy bars and by long waits at the U.S.-Mexico border crossing.
Visits are down 90% since 2005, when an estimated 4.5 million came to the area, according to the downtown merchants association. On an average day now, only about 150 tourists show up, the association says. Some encounter the latest Tijuana spectacle: the rumble of convoys full of heavily armed soldiers down Avenida Revolucion.
Grant Bourne, a 23-year-old tourist from Australia, took a break from visiting San Diego’s beaches to spend a recent afternoon in Tijuana, where he marveled at the striking contrasts between the two cities.
The odd sight of soldiers next to the mariachi-filled Plaza Santa Cecilia enriched his visit in a culture-clash sort of way, he said, and the military presence certainly made him feel safe. But he planned to stay downtown, he said, because “I was told not to stray too far off this street.”
The tourism collapse is especially sad, many merchants and tourists say, because people may not be aware that recent beautification projects and police crackdowns have left the area safer and spiffier than it has been in years.
Tree-lined promenades feature repaved sidewalks and roadways. Police sweeps have cleared out the drug addicts. Gone too are most of the beggars and hookers. At the balcony bars, club owners have turned down the ear-splitting volume.
Many stores showcase high-quality products: silver from Taxco, Talavera pottery from Michoacan, handcrafted stained glass and leather products. The Cuban cigars at the business association-approved stores are authentic, and tourists can get custom-made furniture and pinatas at the historic arts and crafts market.
“That’s what really represents downtown Tijuana,” said Andres Mendez Martinez, coordinator of the merchants association. “Quality products and traditional goods from all over Mexico.”
Still, they acknowledge, that’s not what Tijuana is famous for these days. It’s the bloody battles between police and organized crime that make the headlines.
Since Jan. 1, more than 50 people have been killed across the city, some in wild shootouts that terrified bystanders. Last month, police discovered an organized-crime hide-out near downtown that they said included a training center for hit men complete with a soundproofed basement shooting range.
Recently, the upscale restaurant Hacienda Cien Años, which once drew tourists, was identified by U.S. authorities as a front for money laundering.
Downtown has been flooded with police and has been largely free of the violence. No bystanders have been killed in the shootouts. A crackdown on corrupt transit cops has resulted in fewer reports of extortion, and merchants immediately report officers who stop tourists without reason, according to police.
Still, the negative image hangs over the city. “In reality, the violence isn’t targeting tourists. It’s between drug traffickers, criminals and police. But the tourist doesn’t know the difference,” said Victor Clark Alfaro, director of Tijuana’s Bi-National Center for Human Rights.
Meanwhile, merchants say even some of those who haven’t been scared off by crime reports may be reluctant to visit because of new, stricter requirements for Americans reentering the U.S. from Mexico — and fears that the rules will make crossing the border slower.
U.S. citizens used to get by at the border crossings with oral declarations of citizenship. Now they need to show proof both of citizenship and identity.
“Americans had 9/11; we had 1/31,” said Rojas, the waiter, referring to the date the new rules went into effect.
Aiming to ease the transition to stricter requirements, Baja California tourism officials recently announced a new program called “Get Your Passport” that offers discounts at certain hotels and restaurants to people with U.S. passports.
In the early days of Tijuana tourism, in the 1920s and 1930s, the economy grew fast by catering to Americans’ appetites for vice, and the city’s tourism fortunes have long risen and fallen with the changing social mores and economy north of the border. The fabled Agua Caliente casino and racetrack thrived during Prohibition and attracted such Hollywood stars as Charlie Chaplin and Gary Cooper. In the postwar era, San Diego’s growth as a U.S. Navy port provided a steady stream of thrill-seeking sailors.
Tourist flows peaked in the 1970s, say experts and longtime merchants, but the end of horse racing and the closure of the jai alai arena in the early 1990s started a steady decline. Along Avenida Revolucion, bars and nightclubs offering a warm welcome to underage drinkers opened to take up the slack.
Only glimmers of the past remain.
At the historic Caesar’s Restaurant, which calls itself the “officially certified” home of the Caesar salad, a picture of Paul McCartney sipping a margarita hangs over the bar. A bartender, engrossed in a chess game with the lone customer, dismissed questions about the ex-Beatle’s visit. Meanwhile, a waiter was busy hanging up a sign on the railing outside — for Caesar’s Men’s Club. At night, the former banquet hall in the back of the restaurant becomes a strip club. “Come by later,” said a waiter. “The lap dances are only $20.”
Farther down Avenida Revolucion, pushy shoeshine boys and loud barkers compete for visitors’ attention, tossing out such lines as “Got a Mexican minute, mister?” Many bars offer all-you-can-drink deals. Locals pack the Caliente casino, with its 10-cent slots. Young men urge passersby to saddle up for pictures on the Tijuana zebras, the donkeys painted white with black stripes that epitomize Tijuana tackiness.
It was all too much for James Osborne, a 25-year-old visitor from Iowa. Standing under a “Come Back Soon Amigos” sign, he said his 15-minute visit with a friend was too long. “We’ve had enough. Everybody’s trying to hustle you.”
Keith and Diane Heuser, hospital administration professionals from Iowa, had a different experience.
The couple and their friends bought a $180 leather jacket and a silver necklace, ate chile rellenos and drank margaritas. “We’re having a great time. It’s tacky but entertaining,” said Keith Heuser, while smoking a Cuban cigar on a stroll down lonely Avenida Revolucion.
It used to seem as if Tijuana could attract an endless supply of tourists like the Heusers.
“We never imagined that tourists would stop coming,” said Clark Alfaro of the Bi-National Center for Human Rights. “It’s a shame.”