Kristian Ramos: Can United States Afford to Turn Away Mexican Tourists?



Based on her recent track record, we know that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer does not care much about increasing tourism from Mexico to her state; but could current constraints on legal tourism from Mexico also be hurting America’s bottom line? A new New Politics Institute report underscores that the current system of processing legal travel from Mexico, our second largest market for international tourism, may actually be depressing the economic benefits of being neighbors with the 11th largest country and the 12th largest economy in the world.

Despite overwhelming economic evidence that our relationship with Mexico along the Southwest border region is helping our economy, there are still those like Governor Brewer who insist on characterizing Mexico as a failed state and our border as broken. This view is completely out of touch with the reality of the economic integration of the region. Mexico has problems to be sure, but to dismiss our countries relationship out of hand like that is shortsighted and irresponsible.

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Currently the United States utilizes a 20th Century system to process people legally into our country which does not take into account a globalized 21st Century market. In 201 international visitors spent more than $153 billion throughout the United States, which represented an increase in tourism exports of $19 billion. In addition, in 2011 travel and tourism exports accounted for 25% of U.S. services exports at $152 billion.  Mexico has the second largest number of visits to the United States, with 13.42 million in 2011, and account for a quarter of all the tourists that visit the U.S. annually. In 2010, Mexican tourists spent $8.7 Billion in the United States an 8% increase over 2009.

Given Mexico’s growing middle class, there is more untapped tourism potential in Mexico then ever before. For the first time in Mexico’s history the majority at 53% of the population is middle class. Our economies are so integrated that available statistics undervalue the amount of Mexican tourism in the United States. Mexican tourists are notoriously hard to track as they use American credit cards and money.

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NPI’s report offers some ideas on how to continue to unlock the potential of Mexican tourism to the Unites States. A big step would be revamping the processing of tourist visas in Mexico to make it fairer, faster, and safer while maintaining security standards would greatly enhance travel tourism to our country. Visa requirements are expensive, onerous, and often serve as a deterrent for Mexican visitors, effectively “leaving money on the table” for communities in the Southwestern United States and elsewhere.  

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Finally, we need to upgrade border infrastructure and invest in more staff to operate them efficiently. If we are serious about our tourism exports, we need to upgrade our ports of entry along the border with Mexico. With a multi-billion dollar deficit in border infrastructure, the various border regional master plans—led by the State Department and Mexico’s Foreign Ministry—need to give greater weight to upgrading northbound and southbound passenger vehicle and pedestrian crossings.

The government needs to continue to be creative in helping to drive job creation and economic growth. One of the most promising ideas on this front is regional economic development from the bottom up. John Grant director of NDN’s New Economy Partnership puts it this way ‘Focusing on the border region - not as individual cities or states, but as one big economic development zone - will have a wide range of benefits.  If we want this region to prosper, we need to look at increased tourism as one major source of new revenue.’ Promoting more legal tourism from our next door neighbor just makes sense. States and the federal government should be working together to enhance more economic development and trade in the region.

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A state like Arizona should be working with the federal government and private businesses to invest more in the ports of entry’s with Mexico to increase legal travel and commerce into their state, not trashing it. The real failure here is the fact that legal immigration and travel are based on a 20th century model, and not on a 21st century market where the movement of people from one place to another has become significantly easier. If more time and effort was made to invest in infrastructure and more efficient ways of processing legal immigration and tourism into the country, the economic benefits for all involved could be staggering.

Kristian Ramos Policy Director, 21st Century Border Initiative, at NDN and The New Politics Institute.

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