Mexican border town resorts to tequila festival to boost tourism

Mexican border towns, which once drew Americans looking for the 'Mexican experience,' are now desperate to bring them back amid drug violence and a recession.

The once bustling streets of jovial, persistent merchants beckoning tourists into their shops in this Mexican town, just over the Arizona border, are mostly quiet these days, the familiar mix of Spanish and English conversation a thing of the past.

Across the US-Mexico divide, brutal drug violence has badly bruised border tourism. Even here in Nogales, with a tourist district literally two blocks from the US, the center is empty.

So city planners are sponsoring yet another public event – this one a three-day tequila festival that begins today, showcasing Mexico's traditional drink, along with mariachis, dance performances, and a classic car show – in an attempt to boost confidence, especially among Americans, that a visit to the town is indeed not a death sentence.

“We’d like Americans to come see for themselves that maybe Nogales is not as bad as some people say,” says Jorge Valenzuela, who was hired as the city’s first tourism director late last year.

City officials are in many ways working harder than they ever have, dreaming of new events to promote the positives of Nogales. In late 2010, they began to revive the city’s ailing tourism sector in earnest with the opening of a visitors center, street improvements, the installment of security cameras, and the addition of police patrols. This year, the chamber of commerce launched a “Let’s speak well of Nogales” campaign to help burnish the city’s image.

“We never really had to promote the city before but now we do,” said chamber director Marcela Freig Couvillier before that campaign began.

Special events continue to push the notion that Nogales is a safe place. In late May, about 500 people raced through Avenida Obregon in a 5-kilometer run dubbed “Go with confidence.”

Mona Mizell, who lives in Green Valley, Ariz., was among a handful of Americans who took part in the race. Ms. Mizell, who took first place among female runners older than 60, says she has always felt safe in Nogales.

“I really feel sorry for the business people here,” she said at the time.

And she should. Until recently, Americans strolling the main drag, Avenida Alvaro Obregon, were as ubiquitous as the vendors who hawked silver bracelets, sombreros, and leather belts.

Then Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared war on organized crime and the historically tranquil Nogales gradually began to feel the impact of drug-related violence, including public shootouts and kidnappings. In 2006, the city recorded 35 homicides. By the end of last year, the official body count totaled 202, although the local press tallied a higher count. Killings appear to be down this year but activists say the violence has touched more people with no known ties to drug trafficking.

The tourism district close to the international line remains well patrolled and largely free of violence, Mr. Valenzuela points out. But it is something that officials can no longer take for granted. Instead, they have to continue hammering out the message, be it in the form of tequila festivals and other events, and hope that Americans are hearing.

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