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Program expands travel rules for Mexican tourists in Ariz., despite pandemic restrictions

Rafael Carranza
Arizona Republic
Vehicles travel southbound to Mexico at the DeConcini border crossing in Nogales on March 20, 2020.

TUCSON — Elected, business and tourism officials in Arizona are praising a change in federal guidelines that would allow thousands of Mexican Border Crossing Cardholders to visit popular destinations in the state such as the Phoenix metro area, Sedona and Flagstaff, all of which are off-limits to many visitors from Mexico.

But the state is unlikely to see any travel or spending boon from Mexican visitors anytime soon. The U.S. government is not allowing Mexican visa-holders to cross the U.S.-Mexico border for tourism and other non-essential reasons because of ongoing travel restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Still, Congress approved the expansion of the border travel zone for Mexican visitors through a pilot program established under the Southwest Tourism Expansion Act.

The legislation was included in the 2021 appropriations bill that President Donald Trump signed Dec. 27.

“It plays to our strengths because Arizona is going to be such an attractive location for people to come and vacation, or to go on spending trips, shopping trips," Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., said. 

The expansion had been a priority for Stanton, who championed and advocated for the changes during his time as Phoenix mayor, before voters elected him to Congress.

"The more hospitable we can be to our relationship with Mexico, the more we’re going to benefit economically," he added. "And this is an important piece to continue to increase our partnership and business relationship with our friends in Mexico.”

The idea of expanding the travel zone had broad bipartisan support in Arizona. Stanton, a Democrat, and former Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., introduced the latest version of the legislation last month and had additional bipartisan support from the state's congressional delegation.

The State Department issues the Border Crossing Cards at its embassy and nine consulates in Mexico for temporary visits to the U.S. But under current rules, cardholders are limited to a 75-mile travel zone north of Arizona's border with Mexico. 

That means that, prior to the pandemic, most of the visitors from Mexico and the money they spent in the state stayed mainly in southern Arizona, especially in the Tucson area. Prior studies by the University of Arizona's Economic and Business Research Center found that Mexican shoppers spent nearly $1 billion each year in Pima County alone.

Vehicles with U.S. travelers line up at the DeConcini border crossing to travel south into Mexico on Dec. 17, 2020, despite restrictions on nonessential travel.

The pilot program would expand the travel zone beyond 75 miles and allow Border Crossing Card holders to travel anywhere within the states of Arizona and New Mexico without having to apply and pay for additional permits. 

"We want not just visitors that are already coming here to travel more around the state. We want those visitors to do it more frequently, but to also draw new visitors to the state,” said Felipe Garcia with Visit Tucson, the marketing and tourism promotion office for southern Arizona. He also co-chairs the Arizona-Mexico Commission's binational Tourism Committee.

The travel zone expansion is expected to bring in an additional $181 million dollars in spending from Mexican shoppers to Arizona within the first year, according to estimates the Maricopa Association of Governments commissioned prior to the pandemic. 

The move could provide a sliver of hope for Arizona businesses, especially those in the tourism and retail sectors, which have been especially hit hard by the pandemic.

"By allowing Mexican residents with a Border Crossing Card to travel throughout Arizona rather than being limited to 75 miles, we will be able to attract additional visitors throughout the state and help the industry recover during these challenging times," said Kim Sabow, the president and CEO of the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association.

Retail businesses, especially those close to the Arizona-Mexico border, have either closed or seen sales plummet this year because of the travel restrictions that have kept Mexican shoppers away for most of the past year, including the crucial holiday shopping season.

Alex Park, the assistant manager for Chi's, one of just a few retail stores in downtown Nogales that depend on Mexican shoppers, said sales are considerably down but they have remained open to support their workers.

"Most of our employees have their own family to support, and I'm hearing from what they're saying about their friends getting laid off or their hours are getting reduced because of their situation, and we don't want that to happen," Park said.  

The travel zone expansion under the pilot program could benefit many more cities, and by extension its residents, around the state who could see greater tax revenues, according to municipal leaders.

Lines of Mexico-bound cars wait for the chance to cross the U.S.-Mexico border at the DeConcini port of entry in the twin border cities of Ambos Nogales on Dec. 17, 2020.

"This program is a win-win for both tourists and Arizona’s economy and it couldn’t have come at a better time," Glendale Mayor and MAG Chair Jerry Weiers said.

Under the text of the legislation, Customs and Border Protection must brief Congress within 60 days of the bill's approval on the status of the pilot program and any changes that will be needed to make in order to implement the change. 

The border agency already vets applicants for the border crossing cards, so the expansion will not require additional work from its employees.

Its full implementation still faces hurdles. The biggest factor is the effort on both sides of the border to contain COVID-19 and allow unrestricted travel to resume at border crossings.

Lots of work remains on that front. Arizona is in a dire situation with regard to COVID-19.

Stanton has been critical of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey's handling of the pandemic, saying he has not done enough to contain the virus. He continued pressing for stronger measures such as a mask mandate, increased access to testing, and better contract tracing.

"The response that our state has provided has not been acceptable and so many things play on that, including the ability to get the full benefit of the Southwest Tourism Expansion Act," Stanton said. "We can only get the full benefit of it once we get past the current public health crisis."

Mexico has not fared any better. The virus continues spreading uncontrolled throughout the country. The state of Sonora is near the top in reported cases, even though its population is smaller than many other states reporting fewer cases.

Garcia said another potential benefit to this expansion of the travel zone could come from the other side of the border. U.S. policies are often reciprocated by the Mexican government, which also could loosen restrictions on U.S. visitors to Sonora and northern Mexico, he said.

Have any news tips or story ideas about the U.S.-Mexico border? Reach the reporter at rafael.carranza@arizonarepublic.com, or follow him on Twitter at @RafaelCarranza.

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