Mexican tourism dwindling in Pima County, Arizona

A traveler enters the Nogales Shuttle Service to go from South Tucson to Phoenix on March, 8, 2013. South Tucson features several different shuttle services that take riders to several cities in Arizona (Photo by Kyle Johnson).Mexico. A country rich in history, culture — and tourism dollars.

While Arizona’s neighbors from the South aren’t typically viewed as an economic stimulator, Mexican tourists generated an estimated $975.4 million in Pima County alone in 2008, according to a study by the University of Arizona.

“They come to our malls, to every store you can imagine, and can afford to leave money at restaurants, hotels,” said Felipe Garcia, Executive Vice President of Visit Tucson and the company’s resident expert on Mexico. “It has a great impact here in Southern Arizona and all the state of Arizona because they’re paying sales tax. Every municipality in our state has a benefit from those dollars— or their pesos— when they’re down there, their dollars crossing the border.”

Garcia said images of undocumented border-crossers, drug trafficking and violence first pop into the head of U.S. citizens. People see Mexico as a threat, rarely as an economic opportunity and trade partner.

Unfortunately several factors, such as border violence and S.B. 1070, have reduced the number of Mexican tourists to the United States since 2008.

“(SB1070) really gave us a black eye with the Mexican visitors and the Mexican consumers,” Douglas, Ariz., Mayor Danny Ortega Jr. said.

While the profits continue to rise, though this has a strong relation to inflation, the number of visitors from Mexico has dwindled in recent years. From 2005 to 2010 there has been a 28.9 percent decrease in Mexican tourists crossing the boarder, according to data by the Banco de México.

Tucson Councilman Paul Cunningham called SB1070 a “mean-spirited” law that was designed to treat “people of color as second-class citizens or second-class human beings.” He added that ignoring Mexico as a reliable source of tourism income is shortsighted and racially motivated.

“I think it’s a myth and a misnomer and actually a disservice to folks from Mexico that people characterize them as not having financial resources, things of that nature,” Cunningham said. “I think that’s absolutely uncool. I think it’s actually racist, quite frankly.

“They are our partners, they are our friends and I think we need to welcome them with open arms and welcome their tourism money with open arms.”

The Metro Tucson Convention and Visitor Bureau is making a concerted effort to increase the flow of Mexican tourists back into Arizona, Garcia said.

The main way Visit Tucson is trying to accomplish this? Speaking to Mexicans directly.Infographic created by Kyle Johnson 2013

In addition to a tailored website called ¡Vamos a Tucson!, the MTCVB produces a 30-minute weekly television program in the state of Sonora promoting the benefits of traveling to Tucson. Visit Tucson also has a physical presence in Mexico, with two visitor centers — one in the capital city Hermosillo and the other in Ciudad Obregon.

“We don’t promote the saguaros, the desert and the cowboys because, guess what, they have that down there,” Garcia said. “They want the shopping centers, they want the concerts, they want the casinos.”

Because of that proximity to the Arizona border, the typical Mexican tourist differs a lot from the average international traveler. This has both its benefits are drawbacks.

The international traveler fits more into the “true tourist” mold, Garcia said. They visit large cities to see the sights and sounds and participate more in leisure activities. The Mexican visitor, on the other hand, comes to Arizona primarily as a shopper.

This means they spend money in larger amounts compared to the time they spend, since they are coming with the sole purpose to purchase goods. Unfortunately, this also leads to more same-day travelers with only around 15 percent of the tourists staying overnight in the United States, according to data from the Banco de México.

Same day travelers spend money in more concentrated fashion, but they also leave quicker and don’t stay at any hotels, another big source of tourism dollars. Shuttle companies, such as Nogales Shuttle Service, can help this type of daily travel.

While there aren’t any services that directly take Mexicans from their country into Arizona cities, shuttles run every 20 minutes to take travelers from Nogales, Ariz., a boarder city, to several other locations around the state, said Margarita Torres, the owner of Nogales Shuttle Service.

During her three months running the business out of South Tucson, her company typically takes Latin families to Tucson to shop. While the competition might seem stiff between the neighboring shuttle services, Torres said they all work together to serve their clientele.

Some smaller border towns in Arizona and Mexico are taking an even more direct approach to attracting tourists between the two countries after the tourism has dipped in recent years.

Mayors from Cochise County, including Ortega, as well as mayors from Northern Sonora, Mexico, formed an alliance in December of 2012 to promote tourism between the two countries.

Ortega and Mexican Consul Oscar de la Torre created the group to work on issues such as tourism, border security, employment and the regional infrastructure.

“We’re very, very similar in history and culture and we’re trying to promote that,” Ortega said. “The dollar effect is probably— I hate to say this— what got us talking about this. And since we’re all new we decided to start to meet and introduce ourselves to one another.”

The alliance is still working out the early kinks, but the first thing on their agenda was familiarize with each other. These discussions helped them discover that Cananea, Mexico, and Bisbee, Ariz. are both old mining communities.

But, the group also wants to do more than build relations; they want to increase tourism activity.

“They’re feeling the economic tension, as are we,” Ortega said. “They depend on our American money, our tourist dollars, to go over there as much as we need them here.”

Douglas Mayor Danny Ortega Jr., Bisbee Mayor Adriana Zavala and Consul of Mexico Oscar de la Torre discuss tourism and other topics at a meeting on Jan. 25, 2013 (Photo courtesy of Mayor Danny Ortega Jr.).

The first plan the group of mostly new mayors decided on was a youth soccer tournament, which involved teams from both sides of the border.

“Mexico is very big into soccer, the border towns are very big into soccer, so we thought that’s one of our commonalities,” Ortega said.

“We need to band together. We’re one big unit down here, one family and we need to promote ourselves as such.”

Fixing the problem

The stagnant tourism isn’t without remedy, though.

Just as Ortega and his group are working on understanding, Garcia stressed the importance of simply knowing the differences between the two cultures.

The immediate reaction businesses have when Garcia meets with them is that they don’t speak the language and can’t connect with the tourists, he said. But, Garcia’s first commandment for being Mexico ready isn’t speaking the language; it’s in understanding the culture.

“The most important thing is not being bilingual; it’s being bicultural,” he said.

¡Vamos a Tucson! has a 15 step program to help business prepare themselves for tourists south of the boarder. The program, for example, helps owners understand

“The most important thing is not being bilingual; it’s being bicultural.”

– Felipe Garcia, Executive VP of  Visit Tucson

dissimilarities in customs.

Bringing a check to a Mexican family before they ask for it is “found offensive” in addition to being counter-intuitive, Garcia said. Not only does it offend the family, but it pushes them out of a restaurant or bar when they might have planned on spending more money.

One business that has worked closely with ¡Vamos a Tucson! well before Garcia got there in 2012 is the Radisson Suites Tucson, said the hotel’s general manager Kevin Buck.

In addition to staffing a desk with a majority of bilingual workers and offering traditional Mexican food items for breakfast, Buck said the hotel tries to relate and personally connect with to the Mexican tourists.

“When you talk about the Mexico market, a lot of it is relationships,” he said. “You have to stay close to them, you have to let them know that you’re here to support them and stay in contact with them and let them know that you want their business.”

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