Wednesday, August 21, 2013


 — Baja California’s new convention center rises at the northern end of this beachside community, an oblong building with a wavy roof that overlooks the Pacific Ocean and a coastal toll road — but not much else.

Still, tourism promoters count on drawing visitors here from all corners of Mexico, luring them with regional attractions that include an internationally known Baja Med restaurant scene, a growing arts community, numerous domestic airport connections and proximity to shopping and tourism opportunities across the border in San Diego.
“It’s an exciting moment,” Baja California’s tourism secretary, Juan Tintos, said this month as he stepped past workmen putting finishing touches on the building in preparation for Tuesday’s inauguration. “If someone wants to have an event and serve dinner to 6,000 people, now there’s a place to do it.”
Known as the Baja California Center, the new facility includes a 100,000-square-foot exhibition hall, about one-fifth the size of the San Diego Convention Center’s main hall. Its opening comes as Baja California’s tourism industry seeks to redefine itself following a sharp drop-off in U.S. visitors in recent years.
Longer border lines to enter the United States — the result of tighter security measures after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — have been a major factor in the decline, though the global economic downturn, and reports of drug-related violence have also played a role.
While Baja California’s promoters say the U.S. tourism market is starting to rebound, especially in niche sectors such as sports, food and wine, they have been especially encouraged by the rise in domestic visitors who come for business or special events.
Conventions are a rapidly growing sector across Mexico, said Julio Valdes, a private consultant and former director of the visitors and convention office in the northern city of Monterrey. Eighty-five percent of events are for groups of less than 500, he said, with the largest ones gathering more than 15,000 participants.
Promoters of the Baja California Center said they initially plan to target groups of 800 to 1,500 participants.
One of about 70 convention centers in Mexico, the Baja California Center will allow the Tijuana-Tecate-Rosarito Beach region to compete with more established convention cities such as Mexico City, Monterrey, Guadalajara, Puebla, Leon, Acapulco and Cancun. There are no plans to compete with San Diego in the short term, promoters say, though that is a future possibility, as is the potential for staging jointly with San Diego.
Tijuana hosted 29 national conventions in 2012, and has booked 20 this year, according to Tijuana’s Conventions and Tourism Committee. Group events such as conventions account for about 20 percent of the city’s tourism mix, said Alan Bautista, the committee’s director. With the new convention center, “what’s going to happen is that we’re going to start looking for bigger conventions,” Bautista said.
The center’s first official event, scheduled for Friday, is the opening of Mexico’s National Olympics, which are expected to bring more than 20,000 athletes — and a total of 60,000 visitors — over the next few weeks for a series of competitions being staged throughout the state.
Baja California officials are touting the center as the biggest tourism investment in the state’s history. Funded through a combination of federal, state and municipal funds, the center was built at a cost of $51 million on land donated by the Ejido Mazatlan, a communal landholding group in Rosarito Beach. Running the center is a state agency that includes representatives Baja California’s five municipalities and members of the business community on its consulting board.
The center’s first phase includes 100,000 square feet of exhibition space, a fraction of San Diego’s, but a major step for Baja California. The size is large enough to seat up to 8,500 people in an auditorium setting, or fewer if tables are added. For smaller events, the hall can be subdivided said Gabriel Camarena, the center’s general director. The facilities also include a smaller hall that measures 20,000 square feet and 17 meeting rooms.
The main hall’s 50-foot ceiling, the highest of any convention center in Mexico, opens interesting possibilities, said Valdes, the conventions consultant.
“You could have boxing matches, tennis, spectacles such as a circus that go far beyond a simple conventions center,” he said.
Tijuana’s private sector for decades has clamored for a convention center, and past proposals have put a center in Tijuana near the Otay Mesa border crossing or in the city’s Rio Zone, but they never got past the planning stages.
The current location came after the state government considered 15 proposals before accepting the Ejido Mazatlan’s offer of 25 acres. It sits on an undeveloped 600-acre plot and is a 20-mile drive down the Tijuana-Ensenada toll road from the San Ysidro border crossing.
Some fear the location could be a drawback, far from the center of Tijuana, Baja California’s largest city, with its hotels, restaurants, cultural offerings, and proximity to the border crossings and the A.L. Rodriguez International Airport.
“It’s good that Tijuana finally has a convention center,” said Alejandro Moreno, a private tourism consultant and former state tourism secretary. “Transportation is going to be the challenge, and the government is going to have to promote the development of attractions near the center.”
Moreno said, “Rosarito will be the first to benefit,” though tourism officials say the center will draw more visitors to the entire region, from Tijuana to Tecate to Ensenada.
Tintos and other promoters say experts have told them the location is not an insurmountable drawback. “The ideal would be to have it next to a hotel zone, but it’s very costly to purchase land in those locations,” said Valdes. The distance from urban centers and the border, “for those of us who come from outside, is not a determining factor,” he said.
Camarena, the general director, is confident that the private sector will soon step forward. Five years from now, “you’ll see the difference,” he said recently, as he looked out from a second-floor balcony whose sweeping view included horses grazing and a pickup soccer game. “You’ll see businesses, hotels, you’ll see a landscape very different from right now.”

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