- The program does not include the state of California, it is only for Arizona and New Mexico
TUCSON – Elected officials, business and tourism authorities in Arizona are praising a change in federal guidelines that would allow thousands of tourist visa holders from Mexico to visit popular destinations in the state, such as the Phoenix, Sedona and Flagstaff metropolitan area, without the need to apply for an additional permit, such as the I-94 visa.
But the state is unlikely to see travel or economic spillover from Mexican visitors anytime soon. The US government does not allow Mexican visa holders to cross the US-Mexico border for tourist and other non-essential reasons due to ongoing travel restrictions to slow 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 on December 27.
“It contributes to our strengths because Arizona is going to be a very attractive place for people to come on vacations, or for shopping trips,” said Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Arizona.
Expansion had been a priority for Stanton, who championed and advocated for the changes during his time as mayor of Phoenix, before voters elected him to Congress.
“The more hospitable we are to our relationship with Mexico, the more we are going to benefit economically,” he added. “And this is an important piece to continue increasing our association and business relationship with our friends in Mexico.”
The idea of expanding the travel zone had broad bipartisan support in Arizona. Stanton, Democrat and former Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, introduced the latest version of the legislation last month and had additional bipartisan support from the state Congressional delegation.
The Department of State issues 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 the U.S. Arizona border with Mexico.
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That means that, prior to the pandemic, the majority of visitors to Mexico and the money they spent in the state stayed primarily in southern Arizona, especially the Tucson area. Previous studies from the University of Arizona Center for Business and Economic Research found that Mexican shoppers spend nearly $ 1 billion each year in Pima County alone.
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 for and pay for additional permits.
“We want not only visitors who already come here to travel around the state more. We want those visitors to do it more often, but also to attract new visitors to the state,” said Felipe Garcia of Visit Tucson.
The expansion of the travel zone is expected to generate an additional $ 181 million in spending from Mexican buyers to Arizona during the first year, according to estimates by the Maricopa Association of Governments commissioned before the pandemic.
The move could provide a shred of hope for Arizona businesses, especially those in the tourism and retail sectors, which have been hit especially 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 difficult times,” said Kim Sabow , President. and Executive Director of the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association.
Retail businesses, especially those near the Arizona-Mexico border, either closed or saw their sales fall this year due to travel restrictions that have kept Mexican shoppers away for most of the past year, including the crucial season of Christmas shopping.
Alex Park, the deputy manager at Chi, one of the few retail stores in downtown Nogales that relies on Mexican shoppers, said sales have dropped considerably but have stayed open to support their workers.
“Most of our employees have their own family to support, and I hear what they say about their friends being laid off or their hours being cut because of their situation, and we don’t want that to happen.” “Said Park.
The expansion of the travel zone under the pilot program could benefit many more cities and, by extension, their residents, across the state, who could see higher tax revenues, according to city leaders.
“This program is beneficial to both tourists and the Arizona economy and could not have come at a better time,” said Glendale Mayor and MAG President Jerry Weiers.
Under the text of the legislation, Customs and Border Protection must report to Congress within 60 days of the bill’s approval of the status of the pilot program and any changes that need to be made to implement the change.
The border agency already screens applicants for border crossing cards, so the expansion will not require additional work from its employees.
Its full implementation still faces obstacles. The most important factor is the effort on both sides of the border to contain COVID-19 and allow unrestricted travel at border crossings to resume.
Much work remains on that front. Arizona is in dire straits regarding COVID-19.
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Stanton has criticized Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s handling of the pandemic, saying he has not done enough to contain the virus. He continued to push for stronger measures, such as a mask mandate, greater access to testing, and better monitoring of contracts.
“The response that our state has provided has not been acceptable and many things go into that, including the ability to get the maximum benefit from the Southwest Tourism Expansion Act,” Stanton said. “We can only get the most out of it once we get over the current public health crisis.”
Mexico has not done better. The virus continues to spread uncontrollably across the country. The state of Sonora is near the top in reported cases, even though its population is smaller than many other states that report fewer cases.
Garcia said another potential benefit from this travel zone expansion could come from across the border. US policies are often reciprocal on the part of the Mexican government, which could also ease restrictions on US visitors to Sonora and northern Mexico, he said.
Translation: Javier Arce