LAREDO — After almost 20 months of restrictions on the border caused by the covid-19 pandemic, this city and Texas have a welcoming message for visitors and Mexican tourists: “¡Bienvenidos!”
The reopening of the border on Nov. 8 for fully vaccinated tourists came just in time for the beginning of the winter holidays, one of the biggest shopping seasons of the year.
“Welcome back to Laredo,” a billboard reads along the international port of entry. “We’ve missed you!”
Local businesses prepared sales, music festivals, and discounts hoping to attract their clientele from south of the Rio Grande.
“We have been eagerly preparing for our Mexican customers to buy in our stores again because we have missed them so much,” said Erica Contreras, Marketing Director of The Outlet Shoppes at Laredo, a shopping center next to one of the three international bridges that link this city with Nuevo Laredo, on the Mexican side.
Just in this shopping center, located a few meters from the international border, Mexican shoppers who cross the border with a tourist visa represent 95% of its sales. People can cross on foot and bring their shopping bags back to Mexico walking too.
“It was hard to stay in business (during travel restrictions) but we hope to emerge stronger in the coming weeks as traffic normalizes,” said Contreras. “We’re waiting for you with open arms.”
María Guadalupe López traveled from Monterrey, México, to visit her family and shop in Laredo.
“Before the pandemic, I used to come every month and now this is the first time that I cross since 2020,” said López. “I think it’s great that they’ve opened the border again because coming here (to Laredo) is something natural for us, we do it all the time.”
México is Texas’ main economic partner not only because of its large exports but because of the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans that cross the border on foot, with a car or by bus to shop in one of the cities along Interstate 35, like Laredo, San Antonio, San Marcos, Austin or Dallas.
“Throughout the border between Texas and Mexico, more than 230,000 people cross the ports of entry into the United States every day to work, go to school, shop, go on vacation o have dinner at local restaurants,” said José Iván Rodríguez, a researcher for the Center for the United States and Mexico at Baker Institute, from Rice University. “The majority of these people are Mexican, they represent an important source of business for counties in the Texas border.
The economic losses during the almost 20 months of border restrictions were billions of dollars for Texas.
Mexican shoppers travel to the United States to buy essential day-to-day items at stores like Walmart or Target; discount clothing at stores like Ross or Burlington; but also to shop for luxury items from brands like Michael Kors, Prada, or Gucci. They do it because prices are more affordable, even in dollars, and because the quality of the products is better, they said.
A gradual return to normal
The cities of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo want to return to their usual binational dynamic that had a life of its own until March of 2020 when restrictions were first set.
Customs and Border Protection had warned that the first few days of the reopening were going to be met with long wait times to cross the border, which did not happen last week.
Everything indicates that recovery will be gradual and will likely reach an important peak in the coming weeks, with the holiday season approaching.
“What we are doing is making sure that Mexican shoppers come and spend their money,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, on the day of the reopening. “The U.S. has probably lost around $30 billion because Mexicans were not crossing.”
On the first weekend since the border reopened, parking lots of shopping centers and restaurants were busier. Although not all of the customers were Mexican, employees agreed that it was evident that a lot more tourists were visiting.
Downtown, where many businesses are closed, it seems like recovery will take more time.
“Many businesses were affected, especially those that depended on Mexican shoppers in downtown Laredo,” said Pete Saenz, mayor of the city during a ceremony to welcome international travelers. “From a local perspective, 30 or 40% of sales taxes come from Mexican shoppers who visit our community throughout the year.”
For Gerald Schwebel, executive vice president of IBC Bank’s International Corporate Division, the last 20 months have devastated entire areas of the border with Mexico, so the United States must welcome those who come for non-essential purposes.
“The Mexican shopper has been an integral part of the economic vitality of border communities in Texas,” said Schwebel. “Those who work and live on the border say that we are ‘one city in two countries,’ because we share family, culture, and business bonds.”
For the first time in 20 months
Early in the morning, María Dolores Alemán left her home in Nuevo Laredo to cross to Laredo with her four daughters and visit stores they used to frequent until before the pandemic.
“We want to go buy a lot of things. We got excited when the reopening was announced and we were thinking for many days where we were going to go,” said Alemán. “Things are cheaper and better here, they last longer, like shoes for school or clothes.”
Mexicans who cross the Rio Grande to shop in the U.S. pay an average of $20.20 pesos for every dollar, which can become an expensive trip for families. However, quality and cheaper products justify the expense for many.
“We’ve had more customers, but not so many because there’s no money in México,” said Carmen Reyes, a store manager at an accessory store in Laredo. “Even if people want to cross, if they don’t have money to spend, they can’t come, there’s no way.”
In the streets of downtown Laredo, closed businesses are a common sight. There are streets where it seems the city is a ghost town.
Where there used to be dresses or electronics on display, now there are only closed curtains or windows covered with boards.
“We’ve lived through everything here, even (peso) devaluations, but nothing has hit us like this,” said Martha Castillo, an employee at a store that is located just a few meters from the border. “I think that the situation is not yet solved, we’re still in crisis, but it will eventually get better.”
Stores, big and small, that stayed open had to come up with strategies to attract customers.
The outlet centers and other shopping centers are promoting music festivals and coupons are being given to Mexican shoppers who visit their stores, something unusual in this type of establishment.
“There are a lot more people here now than in previous weeks, the difference is noticeable since the border was reopened,” said María Olivares, manager at an artesanía store in The Outlet Shoppes at Laredo. “My sales have gone up, it’s like people are very excited and they really wanted to come and buy and spend their money.”
Shopping for luxury brands
Travelers with the possibility to drive further north tend to shop at Tanger Outlet San Marcos and San Marcos Premium Outlets, where they can shop luxury brands.
Traveling to these outlet stores is a sort of tradition among middle-class Mexican shoppers from the northern states of Mexico that border Texas.
Shoppers make the trip in their own vehicles or in tour company vehicles that organize trips from cities like Monterrey, Monclova, Torreón, or Saltillo.
Traveling from Monterrey, Ivette de la Fuente arrived to shop at outlet stores in San Marcos after a six-hour drive. She did it in hopes to resume the Christmas shopping ritual that she had for many years before the pandemic.
“This is the Christmas shopping trip, we used to come very frequently and we had to stop because of the pandemic,” De la Fuente said. “They just opened the border, and we have to take advantage, so we have already been to the stores and we’ve been staying here all weekend.”
With her travels Sergio Montañez, who said noticed that the economy in Texas was still active, while in Mexico it remained stagnant.
“You can see the difference, more than other times, in the economy of the two countries,” Montañez said. “Here they are attracting consumers and you can even see it in the short wait times to cross because now they are much more accessible.”
In some brand stores such as Coach or Gucci, some people waited in line for their turn to shop. In those lines, Spanish was the predominant language spoken.
“You can’t find this in Mexico at this price,” said Ramiro Cuéllar, who traveled by car from Monterrey and was waiting in line for his turn to shop at Coach. “The truth is that we did need to come to buy clothes because in Mexico good things are very, very expensive.”
The outlets in San Marcos were full on Sunday, Nov. 14, but although thousands visited the stores, a greater recovery is still expected once Mexican shoppers resume their frequent trips.
“I would dare to say that 98% of my clients are Mexican,” said Daniel Soriano, manager of Perfumes 4U at Tanger Outlets San Marcos. “It has been very difficult to stay afloat, but we have succeeded and are very happy, waiting for customers with open arms.”
Merchants in the area are also expecting a boom in sales to begin next week, with Black Friday sales, kicking off the 2021 holiday season.