Monday, November 11, 2013

Outgoing chief on Baja California's past, future

It has wineries and microbreweries; mountains and beaches; seaports and sports fishing; culinary treats and cultural centers; and 400 events and festivals each year. 

Where is it? What is it? It's Baja California, the northern half of the 1,000-mile-long Baja peninsula that extends from Tijuana on the U.S.-California border to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California Sur on the southern tip.

Baja California was the purview of Juan Tintos Funcke, who, until Oct. 31, served as the Mexican state's secretary of tourism and who held numerous roles in Baja's hospitality and tourism sectors for more than 30 years. 

His post has been taken up by Oscar Escobedo, who has previously served in the tourism secretary position.

Before returning to private life, Tintos took time out for an overview of his state's progress and achievements and his hopes for the future. 

He acknowledged that the region has had a bad rap in recent years, linked with cartel activity along the border: A survey of traveler perceptions two years ago revealed that violence and security issues were top of mind, especially in Tijuana.

However, over the past two years the state has seen increases in arrivals and occupancy despite those fears, as visitors seek out the state's wineries, craft beers and cuisine, according to this year's travelers survey. 

Air arrivals up

"Tijuana Airport welcomed 3.8 million travelers last year, up 7.5% over 2011," Tintos said. "The airport has the second-best air connection network in Mexico after Mexico City.

"The bulk of our visitors arrive by car from the U.S. West, coming to Baja California for vacations, for medical procedures, for the 400 festivals and sporting events each year, for business meetings and, of course, for our food and wine," Tintos said.

Film production companies are a mainstay for the region, as well.

Rosarito Beach, a Hollywood playground in the 1930s and '40s, draws moviemakers to its Baja Studios, where parts of the 1997 movie "Titanic" were filmed, along with scenes from 2001's "Pearl Harbor" and "All Is Lost," a film starring Robert Redford that's in theaters now. 

Hotel occupancy has increased 5% each year since 2011. In Tijuana and Ensenada, it's even higher, up 10% and 15%, respectively.

"We have 11,000 rooms in categories from three-star and up," Tintos said. "More boutique properties are planned, especially along the [Wine Route] and the Sea of Cortes."

Cruise visitors also play an important role in the state's tourism industry.

The port at Ensenada, which ranked sixth in Mexico in terms of cruise arrivals in 2010, moved to second in 2012, after Cozumel, welcoming 429,000 passengers.

"With more cruise lines calls scheduled this season and next, I predict we will top more than 700,000 passengers in the 2014-2015 season," he said.

Cruise visitors already flock to the shopping near the port, but Ensenada is pumping up its excursion choices, steering more visitors to nearby zipline parks and the Guadalupe Valley, the starting point for Mexico's Wine Route. 

The Guadalupe Valley is the largest and best known of seven wine-producing valleys in Baja California. The state today has 70 winemakers who produce 90% of Mexico's wine. 

The $5.3 million Wine Museum, which opened in August 2012, features interactive displays of the history of winemaking in the region.

Along with wineries and 62 microbreweries that have sprung up around Tecate (Baja's beer-producing capital) and near Ensenada and Tijuana, there is the cuisine.

'The new Tuscany'

"Baja is the new Tuscany of cuisine," Tintos said, echoing a phrase uttered by traveling celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who gave rave reviews to the region's restaurants, bars, street food vendors, wineries and beers in an episode of "No Reservations" that aired on the Travel Channel last year.

Chefs in the region today are moving away from heavier dishes to menus that feature Baja-Med cuisine, a new way of presenting the seafood, fresh vegetables, seasonings and fruits of the region.

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