Thursday, October 20, 2011

Arizona Republic Editorial

October 19, 2011 |
Mexicans spend billions here

The Arizona Republic

Arizona has been focusing on the problems associated with the Arizona-Mexico border for so long that it may be missing something.

When Tucson looks south, for example, it sees dollar signs.

Evidence of the economic benefits can be found in the parking lots of such southern Arizona shopping centers as Tucson Mall and Park Mall. Mexican license plates on shiny new vehicles testify to the buying power that flows north in a steady - and legal - stream of Mexican nationals who are looking for the kind of shopping experience they can't get at home.

"Shopping malls tell us that 30 to 35 percent of overall sales come from Mexican nationals," says Felipe Garcia of the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau.

According to research by the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management, Mexican visitors spent $2.65 billion in our state from July 2007 to June 2008.

That spending accounted for a whopping 49 percent of total taxable sales in the border county of Santa Cruz. In Pima County, it was 5 percent of taxable sales. Even in Maricopa County, with its much bigger population, spending by Mexican visitors accounted for nearly 1 percent of taxable sales.

What's more, the number of Mexican visitors is likely growing, despite the negative publicity surrounding SB 1070.

Tucson's Convention & Visitors Bureau center maintains an office in Hermosillo, Sonora, where potential visitors can get information and make travel plans. In July of 2010, about 850 hotel room nights were booked directly through that office, Garcia says. This past July, that number increased to 1,200 hotel room nights. A second Mexico office is planned for Ciudad Obregón, also in Sonora.

Even during the economic downturn, Garcia says, "our friends from the south are coming here."

Making them want to come back is the goal of the visitors bureau's training for local retailers, hotels and restaurants on how to market to the Mexican shopper.

The bureau's "Vamos a Tucson" promotion includes a Spanish-language website where local and national retailers offer coupons tailored to the Mexican shopper. Just print 'em and bring 'em to Tucson.

This campaign is smart and nimble. When Las Vegas started courting Mexican visitors, Tucson realized it couldn't compete on glitz. But flights from Tucson to Las Vegas are much cheaper than those that originate in Mexico. Tucson's airport advertizes this in Mexico, and the bureau is encouraging visitors to drive to Tucson and shop a little before they fly to Las Vegas - and after they fly back.

Smart marketing strategies deserve recognition, but that's not the real purpose of this editorial.

The point is that after so many years of such harsh rhetoric about the problems associated with the border, Arizonans may be overlooking the opportunities. Arizona has long had a rich relationship with Mexico, and the potential to reap growing economic benefits from our international border are vast.

Arizona cannot wish away the challenges associated with its international border. It shouldn't ignore them, either. There are real problems. Real costs. Real issues.

But there are also real opportunities. It all starts with seeing Mexico as the source of something besides bad news.