EL PASO — As tourism rebounds in Mexico, border cities are trying to attract visitors again. Ciudad Juárez is leading the way with the opening of the first visitor information center on the Texas side of the border.
“That’s the message to get across to the U.S.: We’re alive and well, and you can have fun, do business and it will be good,” said Jose Arturo Ramos, executive in charge of projects with the Ciudad Juárez municipal government.
He said “Come back” is the message Juárez wants to send to tourists who crowd the El Paso Saddleblanket Company to buy Southwest souvenirs and gifts.
The Juárez visitor center opened inside the mega store during spring break.
“We get so many people all over the country, every day. And people are really hungry for that information," said Lucas Wells, manager of the El Paso Saddleblanket Company. "There was no place on this side of the border to get it."
The Juárez visitor center will provide information on local attractions, restaurants and shops, and plans to offer vans to shuttle people across the border starting this summer.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Mario Lara, a traveler from Houston. He learned about the new Juárez visitor center while shopping at the El Paso store with his family.
“As long as it’s safe, it needs to happen,” said Lara, who was walking through the store with his impatient young son Marcus. The family stopped in El Paso while driving from California back home to Houston.
Lara said safety concerns have kept him from crossing the border in recent years. “I definitely would go. That’s the only reason I haven’t gone because of what’s been going on,” he said.
As violence quells, many border cities are trying to reconnect with visitors like Lara.
Ciudad Juárez earned the title of Mexico’s murder capital in recent years when warring drug cartels fighting for smuggling routes to the U.S. turned Mexico’s fourth largest city into a battleground.
Now that killings have declined sharply, Ciudad Juárez officials are trying to convince visitors it’s safe to return.
The U.S. State Department's Mexico travel warning state-by-state guide for Americans has been eased for parts of Ciudad Juárez.
The warning now says: "Exercise caution in traveling to the business and shopping districts in the northeast section of Ciudad Juárez and its major industrial parks, and the central downtown section."
But State Department still warns that "U.S. citizens should defer non-essential travel to other areas."
Before they were scared away by drug violence, generations of Americans fondly recall the days when they crossed the border to enjoy Mexico.
"We went shopping there... we had a ball.” said Dolores Evans from San Antonio, who was browsing in the jewelry section at the El Paso Saddleblanket Company.
She was in El Paso to watch her granddaughter play in the Conference USA basketball tournament.
The border region once touted the "two nation vacation" experience as way to attract visitors ranging from college students who flock to South Padre Island for Spring Break to “Winter Texans,” senior citizens who escape to the Rio Grande Valley’s warm climate.
Many Americans also visited Mexico for low-cost prescription drugs, eyeglasses and dental care.
Businesses on both sides of the border say it’s time to band together as region to win those tourists back.
“It’s the only way we can compete with Phoenix, Dallas, and Chicago,” said Ramos.
He had no trouble convincing the El Paso Saddleblanket Company to house the new Juárez visitor center.
"The fortunes and the futures of everybody on both sides of the border are linked together,” said Wells, the store manager.