Prostitution Tourism

SDUT

Plans for a cheeky marketing campaign called “Flirty Tijuana” to promote the city’s red light district appear to have backfired, as Tijuana officials on Monday recast the effort as a low-key program to improve street lighting and security.

In an interview Friday with Síntesis TV, Miguel Angel Badiola, president of Tijuana’s tourism and convention committee, described a publicity campaign called “Tijuana Coqueta” that would promote the Zona Norte neighborhood, where streets and hotels for decades have been a city-regulated venue for prostitution. It would be aimed at visitors from Baja California, San Diego and eventually beyond.

The comments ignited a social media firestorm and a different kind of publicity for Tijuana’s “zona de tolerancia” — one of several nicknames for the district, which features street prostitutes, strip clubs and bars with topless dancers.

Badiola said Monday that the plan was devised independently by the Tijuana Association of Bars and Cantinas to make improvements to infrastructure in the Zona Norte district, such as street lighting, sewers, curbs and security cameras. Badiola said he spoke to the television crew assuming they knew those details. The city tourism committee issued a written apology to Tijuana’s mayor over the weekend, claiming the its initial comments were distorted by media.

Of the area’s prostitution business, he said, “that does not need promotion. The people who look for it know where to find it.”

In his TV interview, Badiola had described plans to promote the Zona Norte to tourists, eventually from elsewhere in the United States and other countries, without specifically mentioning prostitution.

“You cannot block the sun with a finger,” he said in the interview. “What better way to work with our hands and be able in some way to contribute to this change of image with this ‘Flirty Tijuana.’”

Tijuana Mayor Jorge Enrique Astiazarán surveyed the area last week, accompanied by television camera crews. He was asked by a reporter for Síntesis, “Can you promote the Zona Norte for tourists that come from other cities?”

“Only if everything is done respectfully, in order, then go ahead,” Astiazarán responded, while acknowledging both that sex tourism exists in the area and that local business owners have helped the city make street improvements.

That and other seemingly approving interviews — including one with San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce President Jerry Sanders, a former city police chief — were juxtaposed with video footage of streetwalking prostitutes and table-top dancers in the Friday news segment aired by Síntesis. It declared that “for the first time, the City of Tijuana will promote the (prostitution) tolerance zone as a tourism site.”

On camera, however, Sanders spoke only generally about tourism and how campaigns for tourism can benefit the region. A spokeswoman for the San Diego chamber said Monday that Sanders does not support a campaign for Tijuana’s red light district.

The mayor’s office issued a statement saying that Astiazarán was not endorsing or even tacitly approving the Flirty Tijuana campaign. “There is no, nor will there be, any type of campaign that goes against who we are as Tijuanenses,” Astiazarán wrote on Facebook.

On the Facebook page for Síntesis, news about the Flirty Tijuana plan generated more than 500 comments, mainly of outrage or disbelief. Local reporters questioned Tijuana Catholic Archbishop Rafael Romo Muñoz, who called the plan “strange.”

Any publicity that hints at sex tourism is a traumatic reminder for Tijuana residents of the city’s reputation in the 1970s and 1980s as a seedy bastion of brothels and booze — before waves of gang violence drove most tourists away in the 2000s, said Victor Clark, a Tijuana native and professor at San Diego State University who takes his students on academic tours of the red light district.

“Tourism collapsed, and it’s slowly coming back to Tijuana,” said Clark. He said the red light district’s downtown location presents a public image challenge.

Authorities allow prostitution in an area of roughly six square blocks, with regulations by municipal health authorities. Prostitutes are required to pay for a health examination each month and an HIV test every three months.

Clark, in his role as president of the Binational Center for Human Rights, has lobbied for city improvements to the area that help ensure prostitutes are not preyed upon by criminals or extorted by corrupt police — without promoting prostitution.

Bar owners in the Zona Norte have proposed what would be a second round of street-scape improvements that would resolve complaints about trash, unlicensed street vendors and possibly provide security cameras that are used by police to monitor other Tijuana streets.

In response to the criticism and official denials, Síntesis posted unedited footage of its interviews with the mayor and tourism committee president and defended the accuracy and context of its reporting about the Flirty Tijuana campaign.

A news conference is scheduled for today by tourism officials and an association of bars and cantinas.

Staff Writer Sandra Dibble contributed to this report.

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