CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico – This border city has spruced up its historic downtown area with gleaming white paint, new lighting and a walking district just across from the international bridge.
Now a campaign seeks to remake the city’s image to encourage visitors from Albuquerque and other U.S. cities to return.
“We want to welcome back all those people who haven’t been here in a very long time,” said Elisa Garrido, cultural and international events coordinator for the Ciudad Juárez Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The “Welcome Back to Juárez” campaign includes trade shows in 11 U.S. cities – including Albuquerque, Chicago and Dallas – to showcase Ciudad Juárez offerings as a destination.
The campaign kicked off in San Antonio, Texas, on Thursday. An event in Albuquerque is scheduled for January, but the date has not been set yet. Garrido said the plan is to also host a reception because of the historic ties between Albuquerque and Ciudad Juárez.
Generations of New Mexicans grew up visiting the border city.
Jerry Candelaria, an Albuquerque native, said his family would drive down on weekends to shop at the mercado, enjoy dinner at a favorite restaurant and see a bullfight on Sunday.
He also remembers visiting bars with friends when he turned 18, a rite of passage for many since the legal age to drink alcohol in Mexico is 18.
But he cannot remember the last time he was back in Juárez. He said the new campaign has to convince visitors, “It’s safe. It’s beautiful. It’s international.”
The drug violence that scared tourists away and earned Juárez the title of Mexico’s murder capital has steadily declined since 2011, but the city’s blood-soaked image lingers.
“We went through a very hard situation. We want people to know what’s happening now. It’s nothing compared to what it was before,” Garrido said.
There has been a spike in violent crime in recent months but is nowhere near the level it was years ago. Garrido said violence is limited to areas not frequented by tourists.
“As in any large city there are some neighborhoods that are not safe, and we wouldn’t want them to go there,” she said.
A U.S. travel warning for Mexico advises Americans to “exercise caution” in all areas of Juárez. And U.S. government personnel are prohibited from traveling to certain areas after dark, including the “Valley of Juárez” on the eastern edge of the sprawling metropolitan area.
Juárez is the site of the largest U.S. Consulate in the world and visited by people seeking everything from marriage visas to adoption papers. The city’s tourism officials want to highlight the offerings for those who travel to the city for appointments at the U.S. Consulate offices. And Mexico’s fourth-largest city is touting itself as a destination for medical tourism with a new “cluster” of certified hospitals and doctors.
Garrido is eager to tout the many cultural and historic attractions, including the Museum of the Revolution, the Mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which dates to 1659, and the Viva Mexico dinner theater, which includes mariachi music, ballet folklorico and a performance by dancing horses.
“With hotels, shopping, restaurants, a walking area, something tourists could enjoy, we’d go back right away,” said Kristin Watson, a Santa Fe resident.
Watson said she and her husband would make a stop in Ciudad Juárez regularly on road trips through northern Mexico, where they toured ruins and went camping.
“We eventually stopped because of the safety issues,” she said.
Now retired, she said it has been a decade since she visited Juárez.
“We’d love to go back,” she said. “We miss Mexico. I always say every time I leave Mexico I leave a bit of my heart behind.”