Hundreds of travelers wait in long lines at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry after Customs and Border Patrol officials shut down crossing lines in San Ysidro. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Tourism in the border region has been doing well, but divisive rhetoric coming from the White House has many worried.

That was a major takeaway from government officials and tourism organizations at a hearing about binational tourism held by the California Select Committee on California-Mexico Cooperation in National City last week.

“It influences people’s actions, and we have seen this since this president took office,” said state Sen. Ben Hueso, who chairs the committee. “Hate crimes increased in our county, so we need to counter that message.”

It’s been a long-standing concern. In 2016, as President Donald Trump was campaigning to build a border wall, VOSD’s managing editor Sara Libby urged federal officials not to undermine the efforts of local leaders who’ve been making it easier — not harder — for us to travel into Mexico. The best thing about San Diego, she argued in story for CityLab, is its proximity to Tijuana.

Last year, the concerns over impacts to regional tourism emerged when a large caravan of Central American asylum-seekers arrived in Tijuana and after a five-hour closure of the San Ysidro Port of Entry. While homicide rates have surged in the past few years, Tijuana has been trying to maintain and promote tourism, with pink trolley advertisements in San Diego and even a proposal for a hillside Hollywood-like Tijuana sign set on the city’s Cerro Colorado.

Mexico is the No. 1 international tourist market for California, said Caroline Beteta, CEO of Visit California, during the hearing last week.

Visit California estimates roughly 631,000 people traveled by air from Mexico to California in 2019, and spent roughly $1 billion. When you add people who cross by land, that’s 8 million annual trips and $3.5 billion in spending.

For San Diego specifically, there are about 4.6 million Mexican visitors to San Diego, who spend $506 million annually, said Kerri Kapich, the COO of the San Diego Tourism Authority. Most of those are day visitors. Only about 430,000 spend the night. About 47 percent of those people are visiting friends and family, while 38 percent are on vacation.

“We are a very connected community,” Kapich said. “That’s the fabric of who we are in this binational region.”

That travel is impacted, though, by currency fluctuations and other border concerns.

“Tourism is the best way for people to get to know different points of views and cultures,” said Barb Newton, CEO of the California Travel Association.

Newton said she polled her member organizations and found that many were concerned by national travel policies and how California is viewed by people who live outside the state and country. That marked a change from previous years, when things like homelessness were seen as the top negative impact on tourism.

“My members say they are really challenged by the climate we’re working in,” she said.

For Baja California,leveraging its relationship with California is essential.

Oscar Escobedo, Baja California’s secretary of tourism, said Baja saw 27 million international visitors last year. Of those, 82 percent were from California and 16.5 percent were people who had crossed the border by land.

Escobedo encouraged his California counterparts to strengthen their partnerships in creative ways. He suggested a “Two Nation Convention,” where convention-goers would spend part of their time in San Diego and part in Baja. He also expressed a desire to develop Baja’s budding film industry alongside California’s established one.

But one of Escobedo’s most interesting suggestions was a cross-border trolley.

Currently, the Blue Line, which starts in San Ysidro at the border, has the highest ridership of any trolley line in San Diego. The San Ysidro trolley station is the second most active on San Diego’s network, with about 17,955 riders daily. Given that San Ysidro is home to only 20,000 people between 20 and 60 years old, it’s a safe assumption that many of those riders come from Tijuana.

Escobedo floated the idea of using part of an already built-out cross-border cargo railroad. The trolley, he said, would be used by passengers who were pre-cleared — like those who can use the SENTRI program’s commuter lanes when passing more quickly through ports of entry.

Much of the infrastructure is already built, he said. And such a trolley would reduce emissions and traffic at the border. Escobedo said the idea was discussed with U.S. Customs and Border Protection during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., and officials seemed open to it because checking people all at once on the trolley would be easier than checking thousands of individual vehicles.

‘The Waiting Room’ to the U.S.

The names of people allowed to request asylum in the U.S. that day are read off an unofficial list in El Chaparral. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Tijuana is still adjusting to its place as “the waiting room” for asylum-seekers hoping to enter the United States.

A new Public Radio International series, “The Waiting Room,” features the stories of asylum-seekers from Honduras, Mexico, Cameroon and even an Iraqi asylum-seeker from Kurdistan who are waiting to request asylum in the United States.

Tijuana’s unofficial asylum wait list is now at 10,000, up from 4,800 just three months earlier, the Associated Press reports.

The number of asylum-seekers in Tijuana has swelled in part due to a U.S. government “metering” practice, which limits the number of asylum-seekers process each day at a port of entry. A lawsuit challenging the legality of “metering” was given a greenlight to move forward by a federal judge last week, the Union-Tribune reports.

The Trump administration’s so-called “Remain in Mexico” policy, under which asylum-seekers must remain in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated, has caused the number of asylum-seekers waiting in Mexican border cities to climb.

The first person to win his asylum case under the policy was Alec, a Honduran pastor, who the Union-Tribune spoke with. He was released into the United States after spending a day in detention and just as it seemed the U.S. government was preparing to appeal.

A report by Human Rights First has found that more than 110 people returned under the Remain in Mexico policy have reported cases of rape, kidnapping, sexual exploitation, assault and other violent crimes.

More Border News

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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