Proposal could make it easier for wealthy Mexican tourists to bypass Tucson for Phoenix

Proposal could make it easier for wealthy Mexican tourists to bypass Tucson for Phoenix

A proposal to let Mexican visitors easily visit any part of Arizona, not just the southern end, could mean wealthy shoppers will drive past Tucson and spend their money in Phoenix, local leaders fear.

Phoenix-area government leaders are pushing for the change, which would let visitors travel throughout the state without a visa. They say the plan would help the state’s entire tourism and retail sectors.

More than 65,000 people from Mexico visit Arizona each day, spending more than $7 million a day at Arizona businesses, a 2007-2008 University of Arizona study found.

A recent surge in Mexican border states’ sales tax to 16 percent, up from 11 percent, already has shoppers seeking out Tucson’s lower 8.1 percent sales tax.

The border zone rule allows Sonoran visitors who hold Border Crossing Cards to spend up to 30 days in Arizona, but only within 75 miles of the Arizona-Mexico border. Phoenix is more than 100 miles from the border.

The Maricopa Association of Governments, the planning agency for Phoenix-area governments, is proposing the statewide expansion to boost the local economy, said executive director Dennis Smith. If approved, it would be the second time in 15 years the border zone boundary was extended.

“What we’re really trying to work on is growing the economy in all of Arizona,” said executive director Dennis Smith. “We took plenty of hits during the recession here.”

After the agency decided to support the expansion last year, officials started trying to gain approval from border counties. Ultimately, the Maricopa Association of Governments will take the request to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which would need to approve the change to the border zone.

The Pima Association of Governments Regional Council voted last week to support the idea, but the Tucson City Council is opposed to the plan, saying Phoenix government leaders who supported the strict immigration law SB1070 shouldn’t benefit from cross-border commerce. Also, there are some concerns that the extension could hurt Tucson and Southern Arizona. Tucson is 60 miles from the border, so it benefits from visitors coming from Mexico.

“Since Mexican visitors are confined to our immediate area, there are enormous benefits for Southern Arizona, including Tucson,” said Mike Varney, president and CEO of the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. “If we want Mexican visitors to spend their dollars here, we would naturally want to keep that 75-mile zone in place.”

While there is a possibility visitors could bypass Tucson, Mark Van Buren, co-chair of the Southern Arizona Lodging & Resort Association, said he hopes it would instead increase the number of visitors coming through the area.

“We’re always trying to promote and get people to come up here,” said Van Buren, who is also general manager of Tucson University Park Marriott. “There’s quite a few visitors from Mexico that do come here for shopping and spend an awful lot of money here. Anything that would make that happen with more frequency is a positive thing.”

The UA study showed about 10 percent of visitors from Mexico spend a night in an Arizona hotel.

Brent DeRaad, president and CEO of Visit Tucson, said whether the border zone is extended, it will not have an impact on the extent to which the city markets in Mexico. He said it is not yet clear what impact an extension would have on Tucson.

“There’s certainly a possibility that Tucson could lose some shopping-related business if the border zone is extended,” DeRaad said.

He thinks the majority of visitors would still shop in Tucson because it’s convenient, and any time visitors come to Arizona “that’s a very good thing and could certainly help to bring travelers back on a more frequent basis.”

The last time the border zone was extended, from 25 miles to 75 miles in 1999, there was no negative effect on spending levels in border communities, said Lora Mwaniki-Lyman, a Maricopa Association of Governments economist.

The proposed expansion would boost Mexican visitation and spending levels in Arizona, to the benefit of the whole state, she said.

Inside the 75-mile border zone, visitors from Mexico need a Border Crossing Card. To travel farther, they must go through a lengthy process to obtain a Form I-94 Arrival/Departure record from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Some critics of the plan have security concerns. Many people came to the U.S. legally with a Border Crossing Card and overstayed. Yavapai County officials decided not to take a position on the planned expansion because of that worry.

Brittny Mejia is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at

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