Texas Border Tourist Attractions Work to Label Area as Safe
By Lynda Gonzalez
For Reporting Texas
From the coastal beachfront of South Padre Island to Big Bend National Park in the west, Texas businesses dependent on tourists say their areas are safe despite the drug-related violence in northern Mexico.
According to figures from 2009, tourism is the state’s second-most important export-oriented industry, behind oil and gas production, according to an industry profile report by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. A subseqeunt state report said the industry grew in 2010, after struggling through the economic downturn.
More tourists visited South Padre Island, where tourism is a big driver for the economy of the Rio Grande Valley as a whole. Hotel occupancy tax proceeds increased an estimated 5.6 percent in 2011 after rising 5.2 percent in 2010 and 4.6 percent in 2009, according to City Manager Joni Clarke.
Clarke emphasized that South Padre is safe and immune, so far, from the drug violence in Mexico.
“We are an island, and we don’t have a lot of issues that you would see in the news typically,” Clarke said. “We’re very aware of the concern, and I know that our police department gets regular updates. We have an extremely high ratio of [officers to civilians] on the island, with 10 officers per 1,000, where it’s usually normal to only have one per 1,000. Of course it’s because our population spikes with tourism during summer and other events like that.”
“I’m a single woman who lives alone, I walk my dogs at night, and I feel incredibly safe here,” Clarke said.
She said that a stabilizing economy and recently opened air service from Monterrey, Mexico, to Brownsville by AeroMexico have contributed to the boost in tourism. The City of South Padre Island has adopted a marketing strategy that encourages “vacationship” and the idea of keeping consumer dollars in Texas, Clarke said.
Proximity to Mexico used to be one of the island’s attractions, but day-trip tours south of the border have vanished. The Rio RV Park in nearby Brownsville states on its website that, “The free day trips … (to) Matamoros and Progresso, Mexico, are no longer [available] due to the news media’s stories.”
“The entire world is aware of what’s going on in Mexico,” Clarke said. “A lot of the attraction in the area is visiting Mexico, and it’s not something that we advise. We don’t take an official position on the situation, but we take our stance from what the national travel advisory is.”
The Texas Department of Public Safety released this year’s travel advisory against travel to Mexico for spring break. DPS spokesman Tom Vinger says that the report is proactive in trying to help people make informed decisions about their travel plans, but by no means does it warn against traveling to the Texas side of the border. According to Vinger, the risk isn’t comparable.
“We don’t discourage anyone from going to South Padre Island,” he said. “You can’t compare Mexico and the United States. The violence in Mexico is far greater, far more brutal than the United States. We don’t see beheadings, car bombings [or]… assassinations of police officials.”
Farther west, the violence in Mexico is a concern to tourism businesses in the Big Bend National Park. The recent State Department advisory issued on Feb. 8 cautioned against visiting the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila bordering Big Bend National Park, even though it did not report any nearby violence, on either side of the border area.
Danny Ferguson, the general manager of the Chisos Mountain Lodge, located within the park, said the alerts have caused people to frequently ask: “Is it safe down there?”
Like Clarke, he uses the examples from his personal life to show how secure the area is.
“I leave my keys in my car. I leave my doors unlocked at my house,” said Ferguson, who also serves on the marketing committee for the Brewster County Tourism Council. “Most people don’t realize it’s safe down here, and they consider all the border to be dangerous when they think of the negative issues going on.”
Vinger does acknowledge that there are drug smuggling issues along the border, but they ultimately affect the entire country, not just border cities. The foremost goal is to educate travelers planning on going to Mexico, not border attractions.
“People are going to make up their own mind,” he said. “We want people to be informed, to look at multiple sources and not just people who have a financial interest in them going somewhere.”
Ferguson says the statewide drought and wildfires have also decreased tourism to his area but that the re-opening of the Boquillas, Mexico, the border entry point at Big Bend, scheduled for March, should help reverse the trend.
While tourism close to the border has suffered, the violence in Mexico hasn’t had a significant effect on business at the well-known Gage Hotel in Marathon, according to its general manager. If anything, Carol Peterson said, business at the hotel is improving because of the economy.
“We’re still booking a lot of weddings,” she said. “We had a wedding at the end of last fall and most of the people were from Juarez and El Paso, and it’s an example of something that might not have happened here if it weren’t for the events in that area.”