The steel border wall divides Nogales, Arizona on the left from Nogales,… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
TUCSON — Tourism officials here have long lured visitors and their dollars to the region with images of fantastic desert sunsets, wellness resorts and endless nature trails.
But to entice their most prized foreign visitors, they tout great shopping at good prices. Louis Vuitton, Dillard's and Apple attract Tucson's neighbors in Mexico, who account for nearly 68% of its international tourists.
For decades, millions of Mexican shoppers from neighboring Sonora and Sinaloa have trekked to Arizona for a full day, and sometimes a long weekend, dedicated to buying clothes, electronics and other goods. They camp at area hotel rooms, dine at local restaurants.
"Sometimes they spend a couple hours at most in the hotel room because they are shopping and just dropping off bags at the room," said Jessica Stephens, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Spending by Mexican visitors constitutes more than 5% of Pima County's sales tax revenue, according to the visitors bureau. And tourism officials have further ambitions.
Faced with political backlash from the state's tough illegal immigration laws and increasing efforts to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, local officials have tried to mitigate the long border lines and bad perceptions with grass-roots public relations.
They've met with Mexican officials, trained local retailers in Mexican culture and even created a half-hour Tucson tourism television show for more than 200,000 cable subscribers living in Mexican border states. Their aim? To banish the perception that Arizona is unwelcoming or hostile toward Mexicans.
"We really need that customer to come here," said Felipe Garcia, executive vice president of the visitors bureau.
An estimated 24 million Mexicans visited Arizona in 2007 alone, according to the most recent University of Arizona study. Of those, about 2.7 million visited the Tucson region and spent about $976 million in Pima County. Tourism officials think those numbers have continued to rise.
Although shoppers flock in year-round, there's usually an uptick right before the school year and Easter and during the Christmas holidays.
Last week, Jorge and Isaac Zaied accompanied their mother, Mayo Zaied, for some last-minute Christmas shopping at La Encantada, a high-end outdoor mall not far from the Santa Catalina Mountains in northern Tucson.
The Zaieds left Cole Haan holding multiple bags for their trip home to Nogales, Mexico.
They came to Tucson for quality, they said.
"In Nogales there isn't Cole Haan. There isn't a Tiffany's. There isn't even a Polo," said Jorge Zaied, 30, who added that the prices for high-end items are also better in Tucson.
Zaied and his family have a SENTRI card, a pass from U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials that allows quick transit across the border via special commuter lanes. Mexicans with U.S. visas undergo an intensive background screening to qualify.
Once they do, the usual 21/2 -hour wait can be whittled down to a few minutes, Garcia said.
Agency officials at Tucson visitors offices in Hermosillo and Ciudad Obregon have teamed up with Customs and Border Protection agents to help Mexicans negotiate the application process.
The Tucson visitors bureau runs a program aimed at Mexican tourists called "Vamos a Tucson," or "Let's go to Tucson."
They've also started a workshop called Mexico Ready, which trains Tucson service industry employees on Mexican etiquette. Hotel clerks are taught to hand room keys to a Mexican client instead of slapping them on the counter, and servers are encouraged to bring the bill to a meal only after the client asks for it, not before.
"The service is more intimate and personal," said Marisol Vindiola, who focuses on the Mexican market for the bureau.
Still, Garcia said it can be challenging to battle the bad perception Arizona developed after passage of SB 1070, an illegal immigration enforcement law that critics say targets minorities.
A week after the state Legislature passed the measure in spring 2010, Garcia met with Mexican officials in Hermosillo.
"There is a perception problem here," he said he told them. "You all think that in Tucson we are all racists and we don't like Mexicans. And there is a perception problem of traveling to Mexico where people [in the United States] think there is violence and bullets flying everywhere. Both sides have a perception problem. Why don't we help each other and help promote each other's regions?"
Both sides agreed.
A few months after the measure became law, hotel reservations began to climb and have increased every month since, Garcia said.
Karin Denisse Meneses Velasquez, 30, of Hermosillo squeezed her cart full of bed linens and clothes, negotiating the congested aisles of the Ross Dress for Less discount store at the Foothills Mall.
"There are just better prices here," she said, perusing the toy aisle for a gift for her goddaughter.
At nearly 9 p.m., she and her boyfriend still hadn't checked into their hotel. She wanted to hit the stores first.