Baja California tour operator Turista Libre regularly offers a couple of enticing Tijuana excursions that allow visitors to experience a gastronomic sampling of ethnic foods or, if they prefer, a close-up look at the U.S.-Mexico border itself, including prototypes for President Trump’s hoped-for border wall.
Trouble is, there are few, if any, takers these days for the weekend tours that sell for about $60.
As news of growing tensions surrounding the migrant crisis in Tijuana builds and fears of potential border crossing shutdowns persist, tourism in Baja California is taking a big hit.
Getting a table at popular celebrity chef-helmed restaurants is not a problem, occupancies at hotels from Tijuana to Ensenada are tumbling, and doctor and dentist offices that rely heavily on San Diego-area patients are reporting cancellations that have led to a drop-off in medical tourism business of as high as 70 percent
“What we’ve been experiencing is on par with the rest of the businesses across the border, about a 50 to 60 percent decrease since the caravans (from Central America) began arriving and since it’s been front and center,” said Derrik Chinn, a former San Diego journalist who started Turista Libre about a decade ago to give visitors a way to experience Mexico like an insider. He says he has lost about $4,000 to $5,000 in business so far and has had to cancel five tours planned for the last two weekends.
“At first, it was alarming to me but it reminded me of why Turista Libre came to be, to allow people to change their minds about how sensationalized Tijuana had become. My concern is how long will it take for this ripple effect to subside. Aside from the border shutdown last Sunday, things in the city seem pretty normal … if only people would sign up for tours.”
Among visitors’ greatest fears, say the owners of tourist-friendly businesses, are potentially huge delays at border crossings or being trapped in Mexico should there be another hours-long shutdown at the border like the one that occurred last Sunday at the San Ysidro crossing.
A tweet at the time by Trump threatening more border shutdowns because of asylum-seeking migrants has only exacerbated fears.
Even before that, Chinn’s company started receiving emails from clients reluctantly canceling reservations because of what they were hearing about tensions at the border.
“I think I need to pull the plug on this,” one person wrote about plans for an upcoming private tour. “I don’t want to, but about 30% of my staff has backed out due to the border situation. I’ll for sure be back (have done your tour twice now and loved it), but just don’t think this time it’s going to work out.”
“I had been monitoring things, but had no idea the caravan would arrive at Tijuana this quickly,” wrote another. “We are beyond disappointed, but obviously would like to schedule this for another time.”