Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mexican Shop up North for Bargains

Agustin Acuna loaded Mexicans’ bags for the return trip from Tucson.

Mexican shoppers with fists full of cash and long Christmas lists are pouring across the border into hotels, restaurants and shopping malls here, providing an economic boost in a downward spiraling economy.

The families, mostly middle- and upper-income, are traveling hundreds of miles to take advantage of a much wider selection of products at substantially lower prices than can be found in their hometowns in the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa — even after the recent 30 percent devaluation of the Mexican peso against the dollar.

For many, it is a long journey by car that includes multiple searches at Mexican police roadblocks, followed by a huge traffic jam at the border crossing in Nogales, where delays of two hours or longer to enter the United States are common. But even with the exasperation, Mexican shoppers said it was still worth making the trip.

“We can find everything we want and it’s much cheaper,” said Aurelia Peralta, a 38-year-old homemaker from Hermosillo, a city of 700,000 about 200 miles south of Tucson. Pointing to the Guitar Hero World Tour display model her teenage son was playing, she said popular Christmas gifts cost twice as much in Hermosillo.

I know that Mexicans travel back by airplane laden with consumer goods; I've seen them on our trips to Mexico. But this is news to me.

Making Mexican shoppers feel welcome is an increasingly high priority for businesses in Tucson.

The numbers are staggering. Mexican visitors spend more than $300 million a year in the Tucson metropolitan area, according to a study in 2002 by the Economic and Business Research Program at the University of Arizona.

But it is more than that.

Tucson attracts more than 3.46 million visitors from Mexico each year and the city’s convention and visitors bureau is aggressively marketing the city across the border in the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora. J. Felipe Garcia, vice president of community affairs and Mexico marketing for the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau, said a steady number of Mexican visitors are continuing to shop in the United States despite the economic troubles that are also gripping Mexico, where retail sales are falling along with the value of the peso.

Curious that the dude who works for the Tucson Bureau is named Felipe Garcia. Telling.

The survey, which will be updated next month, found that Mexican tourists spent close to $1 billion in Arizona, far more than the $330 million spent by Arizonans in Mexico. The co-author of the 2002 report, Vera Pavlakovich-Kochi, said the report to be released in January by the Arizona Office of Tourism is one of four studies conducted over the last 30 years that have found that Mexican visitors have “very significant economic importance to Arizona.”

Quite a trade imbalance for Mexico: $330 million in, $1 billion out. And quite a name: Pavlakovich-Kochi.

Fernando Escalante, 39, is one of those Mexican shoppers who shrugged off bad economic news and brought his family to Tucson to shop. Mr. Escalante, the owner of a heating and air-conditioning business in Hermosillo, said he is spending less money this year but getting more merchandise because prices are much lower. Mr. Escalante said Mexicans are in a better position to weather economic turmoil because many own their homes outright and do not carry large amounts of credit card debt. “If we have it, we own it and we have already paid for it,” he said.

Interesting sociology: Mexicans are used to instability, and use credit far less than USers.

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