Tijuana is dead. Long live Tijuana! Despite drug-war violence, flatlined tourism, and a reputation that's gone from shady to disastrous, Tijuana is actually alive and well, possibly better than ever. Crime is down 40% in the last 2 years, and a new police chief has defied narco-cartels to bring the city's police force back in line. The creative, middle, and upper classes are out again in the city's busy social life. While drug-war killings are still a dark presence (Tijuana's per-capita murder rate is approximately equivalent to Detroit's, but lower than that of New Orleans), they're confined to parts of town tourists will never see. But that good news hasn't made it across the border, and ticky-tacky U.S. tourism, once the city's mainstay, has evaporated. In its place has come a flowering of genuine local culture, based in Tijuana's urbanity and cross-border way of life, that's making this city of nearly two million one of the most important cultural hubs in Mexico.
Tijuana is a city that has seen its share of booms and busts. Its reputation for hustling and decadence stems from its early notoriety as a playground of illicit pleasures during the U.S. Prohibition, when scores of visitors flocked here to the site of the world's largest saloon bar, the Whale, and Caesar's, birthplace of the Caesar salad. Not long after, the $10-million Hotel Casino de Agua Caliente -- the first "megaresort" in Mexico -- attracted Hollywood stars and other celebrities with its casino, greyhound racing, and hot-springs spa. From the 1970s through the 1990s, TJ (as it's nicknamed by many American visitors) became known as a party mecca for vacationing college students and a must-see curiosity for international travelers. But a rash of brutal murders and kidnappings related to Mexico's narco-wars starting in 2006, some involving American citizens, has decimated the city's reputation as a south-of-the-border playground. While tourists have never been involved in the drug violence, bad press and the extreme savageness of some of the killings have scared the vast majority of them away.
Today, tourism in Tijuana is concentrated on a few select groups: medical tourists from the U.S. taking advantage of low Mexican prices (averaging one-fifth of U.S. costs) for medical and dental treatment and prescription drugs; executives of the more than 500 international factories in the border area on business-and-pleasure trips; and adventurous Southern Californians who are close enough to the local scene to get some perspective on the headlines. What they find is a new Tijuana, that's leaving its bad old days behind for a more complex, sophisticated, and ultimately exciting future.
Warning: Bad Reputation
The U.S. Department of State issued a Travel Advisory for Mexico on April 22, 2011. The section on Tijuana reads: "Targeted [transnational criminal organization] assassinations continue to take place in Northern Baja California, including the city of Tijuana. You should exercise caution in this area, particularly at night. In late 2010, turf battles between criminal groups proliferated and resulted in numerous assassinations in areas of Tijuana frequented by U.S. citizens. Shooting incidents, in which innocent bystanders have been injured, have occurred during daylight hours throughout the city. In one such incident, an American citizen was shot and seriously wounded." It's important to note here that "U.S. citizens" are not the same thing as tourists; there are citizens of both nationalities living in mixed communities on both sides of the border. To go back to the Travel Advisory, "there is no evidence that U.S. tourists have been targeted by criminal elements due to their citizenship." It's extremely unlikely that your visit to Tijuana's restaurants, galleries, and shopping will end in drug-war bloodshed.
Still, Tijuana has a street crime problem equivalent to that of many U.S. cities, and you should exercise the same caution here that you would there. Stay away from deserted streets, especially at night. Don't walk around visibly intoxicated or showing lots of cash or jewelry. Park in well-lit, guarded parking lots. Avoid driving at night, and when driving between Tijuana and Ensenada, stick to the toll road, and obey instructions at any checkpoints you may encounter. And if you should be the victim of a robbery or carjacking, don't resist. The Ministry of Tourism has set up toll-free numbers to call from the U.S. and Canada (tel. 866/201-5060) and Mexico (tel. 078) staffed 24 hours daily with English-speaking operators who can coordinate help from the police.
A final word from the State Department: "Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day for study, tourism or business and at least one million U.S. citizens who live in Mexico."