Walking around the roughly five square blocks that make up the tourist district of Nogales, Sonora, one gets the feeling the town is dead.
Shops and pharmacies that did a brisk business just a few years back now have troubling amounts of elbow room for day-trippers who make the trip south.
Though Nogales has never had the panache of more famous tourist districts in the United States like Old Town San Diego or Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, it’s traditionally managed to attract a significant number of visitors. That is, until recently.
People on the U.S. side of the border are still spooked by the spate of street violence that rocked the city in 2009 and 2010.
Though the city of 220,000 had 83 murders in 2011 – a decrease of 60 percent from the year before – locals will quickly point out that no tourists were caught up in any violence. Everyone from police officials to local politicians to guys quietly drinking a Tecate in bars like the Salon Regis say the same thing – the violence has ended, and the city’s back to normal.
Regardless, the perception persists that visiting Nogales is potentially hazardous to a tourist’s health, and the industry has taken severe hit.
Nogales Mayor Ramón Guzmán is working hard to rehabilitate his city’s image, though. He’s been reaching out to the mayors of Tucson, Phoenix, Nogales, Ariz., and other cities in Mexico. He has also created a force of bicycle-riding police officers to patrol the tourist area and provide a sense of security he says was absent in previous years.
The mayor has even pulled duty as a tour guide, showing the sights to the chief of police from Nogales, Ariz.
“He was afraid to come here,” Guzmán says, smiling a little at the thought. “So I took him around for a walk, and said, ‘Look, see how nice my city is.’
“Now he loves it. He can’t stay away from here.”
As much as the mayor enjoys hosting his neighbor city’s top cop, he doesn’t want to stop there. Nor do his appointed tourism gurus, Alvaro Heredia and Angel Molina, whose charge as top officials with the Nogales Tourism Board is to bring back the crowds.
The pair is working up plans to attract tourists to “Heroica Nogales,” scheduling festivals with music, food, traditional dances and tequila – along with a few bruising uppercuts.
As part of the city’s Winter Festival, scheduled for November 15-16, the tourism board is holding a boxing match between unknown and hungry U.S. and Mexican fighters.
“Originally, it was going to be held out in the street,” Heredia says. “Unfortunately, construction on the street where we were going to hold the exhibition has changed those plans. But we’re still going to have it indoors somewhere.
“It’ll be part of our festival to welcome all the snowbirds back from Minnesota and Chicago and all the other places up north.”
Heredia and Molina envision a walking district with cafes, restaurants and more upscale shopping experiences for curious visitors. But they say the city’s real growth may come at the point of a dentist’s drill.
With the ever-significant number of Americans crossing the line for cheap plastic surgery and to have their teeth worked on, the belief that medical tourism will get the city’s tourism trade back on its feet makes sense.
“We see it as one of the pillars for our future,” Molina says. “The dentists here are very high quality, and the price is much more reasonable than in the U.S.”
Green Valley resident Jerry Mortaloni is one such medical bargain hunter. He says there’s also another reason to make the trek south for dental care.
“Obviously it’s cheaper,” the retiree says while waiting his turn at Smile Dental, located about 50 yards from the border wall. “But it’s more than that. I like the system down here. The dentist does most of the work.”
There are also groups on the U.S. side who are working to build bridges with Nogales. Bob Phillips heads one of them.
Phillips, the executive director of the Santa Cruz Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Tubac, guides between 10 and 15 people on a cross-border tour once a month in an effort to show them that Nogales is safe and welcoming.
The tour’s numerous stops include a community center far-removed from the tourist district, a center for autistic children and the city’s industrial zone, among others.
Phillips believes a person could quote crime and security statistics until they were blue in the face, but says seeing the situation on the ground is the only real way to change people’s minds.
“What you’re fighting here is not factual reality,” says Phillips, who cites Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild as one tour participant who was greatly impressed. “If you look at violent crime statistics, you see the area is safe.
“Those of us who live down here in the area kind of giggle at that notion of all the danger.”
Former attorney and management consultant Russell Carpenter of Green Valley has gone on some of SCCF’s excursions, and has seen how attitudes are transformed.
“Everyone I’ve ever talked to has been astounded by what they’ve experienced,” he says. “It’s such an eye-opener for people, it really is. They feel like they’re seeing a world they didn’t know existed.”
Both Carpenter and Phillips point out Sonora’s commercial importance to Southern Arizona, and say the existing climate of fear undermines the Grand Canyon State’s efforts to grow its sluggish economy.
“What happens in Mexico doesn’t stay in Mexico,” Phillips says. “It influences and shapes the future of Arizona.”
Underscoring Phillips’ point, in a June 7 guest column in the Arizona Daily Star, Kristian Ramos said, “According to a recently released study (co-authored by Arizonan Erik Lee), trade between the U.S. and Mexico has increased from $300 billion in 2009 to a staggering $536 billion last year.”
The 2012 State Department warning also weighed in, saying, “Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year for study, tourism, and business, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day. More than 20 million U.S. citizens visited Mexico in 2012.”
All this hasn’t escaped the notice of Mexican officials, including Consul Ricardo Pineda in Tucson. Sitting at his desk in his South Stone Avenue office, he echoes Phillips’ thoughts.
“From both the human and commercial standpoint, greater trust and cooperation is crucial for both our communities,” he says.
Despite the differences that neighbors often contend with, Pineda is imbued with the optimism that people who spend their lives building relationships and fostering goodwill so often have.
“It’s amazing to be a witness to this history,” he says. “We have a 2,000-mile border, and it is working.”
And from the Edificio Municipal on Avenida Obregón, Nogales’ mayor champions his city’s cause with a mix of charm and no-nonsense advocacy.
“I’ve fought our case with a lot of American officials, including the American ambassador to Mexico,” he says. “But what we want is continued friendship. We want to receive our American friends and do business with them.”
And who knows, some lucky visitor may just earn a personal audience with Nogales’ most highly-placed tour guide.
“I would like people to come here to ask me about this city and accompany me,” Guzmán says, serious, but smiling all the while. “I will show them around. They will see it’s not like they think.”