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A passport to visit New Mexico

Shoppers walk past a sign advertising La Michoacana popsicles, a popular brand that draws Mexican visitors into Café de Mesilla. (Lauren Villagran/Albuquerque Journal)
Shoppers walk past a sign advertising La Michoacana popsicles, a popular brand that draws Mexican visitors into Café de Mesilla. (Lauren Villagran/Albuquerque Journal)
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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES – Fifty-five miles and 30 days. That’s the offer New Mexico is promoting south of the border in an advertising campaign that aims to draw Mexican shoppers farther into the state.

A rule change in July doubled the distance Mexicans with a laser visa – a high-tech border crossing card – can travel into the state without requesting an additional permit, and increased the time they can spend here from 72 hours to one month. The goal? To attract a tourist market that has been, in recent years, so close yet so far away.

“We are looking to attract people to come here who want to do some shopping, and visit family and friends and enjoy cultural activities in the area,” said Philip San Filippo, executive director of the Las Cruces Convention and Visitors Bureau. “People have been going to El Paso for a number of years and this gives them an opportunity to come farther north. We think this is going to be a big boost for the economy.”

Mexico’s rising middle class – prominent in northern states like Chihuahua – has increasing disposable income to spend on travel and shopping. Just across the border from Ciudad Juárez, El Paso has traditionally captured many of those pesos. Beefed-up security along the border has discouraged Mexicans from breaching the 25-mile rule or waiting in line for an additional permit to travel beyond that secondary borderline.

That’s kept destinations like Mesilla, Las Cruces, Lordsburg and Deming out of reach. Until now.

“Our goal is to bring people and dollars to New Mexico,” said state Tourism Secretary Monique Jacobson. “We spent some time there” – referring to Chihuahua – “and there is so much about New Mexico that we think would be of interest to Mexicans.”

Getting the word out

New Mexico is getting the word out through newspaper ads, fliers distributed to cars waiting at ports of entry, billboards from Ciudad Juárez to Palomas, a dedicated Spanish-language website and an aggressive smartphone campaign. “Digital advertising, online mobile advertising is huge” in Mexico, said Cheri Kofakis, a consultant and the campaign’s media buyer.

The Tourism Department reports people spent more than eight minutes on the Web pages, and those dedicated to the laser visa information were the second most-visited on the website.

“We had click-through rates up to 3 percent,” which is considered high, said Martín Leger, Tourism Department advertising manager.

The visitors bureau, along with Luna County and the city of Deming, pooled $30,000 and received matching state funds for a $60,000 campaign that ended in September. A second $60,000 round of funding with the same local-state split will pay for two holiday campaigns, one that begins this month and another ahead of Mexico’s spring vacation.

The first campaign, designed by Santa Fe-based HK Advertising, featured two young women snapping a photo of themselves with an iPhone in front of an iconic Mesilla brick wall, with a tagline invitation to shop and stay in southern New Mexico. The next phase will hinge on a holiday theme, said David Hayduk, HK Advertising chief executive.

Boost to the economy

“We came for brunch, only we arrived a little late,” said Lucero Santiago de Caballero, who arrived in Mesilla one late Sunday afternoon from Delicias, Chihuahua, to dine at the Double Eagle with family from Ciudad Juárez. “They told us it was a very typical (Southwestern) town.”

 A crowd gathers for a Sunday afternoon mariachi performance at Mesilla plaza. (Lauren Villagran/Albuquerque Journal)

A crowd gathers for a Sunday afternoon mariachi performance at Mesilla plaza. (Lauren Villagran/Albuquerque Journal)

Mesilla’s cafes and shops, Deming’s Wal-Mart and well-known Western apparel store, festivals in Las Cruces and southern New Mexico wineries are among the draws that city, county and state officials say ought to attract visitors.

“We are expecting that, once it’s public, and people know that there is an alternative to just going shopping in El Paso, we expect we can boost tourism by 50,000 to 100,000 people per year in Las Cruces and southern New Mexico,” San Filippo said.

An advertising campaign informs Mexican visitors with laser visas that new rules allow them to travel farther into New Mexico and stay longer. (Courtesy of New Mexico Department of Tourism)

An advertising campaign informs Mexican visitors with laser visas that new rules allow them to travel farther into New Mexico and stay longer. (Courtesy of New Mexico Department of Tourism)

He notes that a similar rule in Arizona “has brought in billions of dollars to their economy.”

The state Tourism Department, local governments and visitors bureau haven’t measured the economic impact of the campaign yet, nor have they agreed on who would pay for such a study.

“Arizona, when they did this, they started designing an evaluation of their marketing effort before it started,” said James Peach, economics professor at New Mexico State University. “It’s not cheap. You ought to survey before and then afterward so that you know if it makes a difference or not.”

Businesses in Mesilla offered mixed opinions as to whether the new rule, or the tourism campaign, has brought in more Mexican customers. William Mudd and Laura Hannah own the home fragrance store Scentchips just off the plaza. They say they always ask where their customers are from.

“I ask as part of my sales pitch,” Mudd said. “I haven’t really noticed an increase or a decrease.”

Joyce Zimmer keeps a board on the plaza corner advertising La Michoacana popsicles – a popular Mexican brand that she says attracts Mexican customers to her coffee shop, Café de Mesilla.

“I guess you look for something that reminds you of home,” she said, adding that she has “always had a steady flow of Mexican customers.”

Although Mexicans with a laser visa previously needed an additional permit to travel to Mesilla, there is no checkpoint on the road from El Paso or Santa Teresa, so some people came anyway.

“They came like pirates” – surreptitiously, said Ramon Garcia, who visited Mesilla recently from El Paso. “They’ve made legal what was already a custom.”

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