All eight gas pumps at the Circle K on bustling Mariposa Street here were occupied Tuesday night, with lines four-vehicles deep. Nearly all the cars and SUVs had Mexican license plates from the neighboring state of Sonora.
It has become a nearly nightly ritual on the U.S. side of the border as drivers, their vehicles packed with suitcases and passengers, prepare to return to Mexico after a day shopping in Arizona stores.
This night, however, was busier than usual, as the number of Mexican travelers swelled with the arrival of Semana Santa, or Holy Week.
Semana Santa has for Mexico become a popular travel holiday, on par with Memorial Day or Labor Day weekends in the United States. Government offices and most businesses close starting on Thursday, leaving a four-day weekend that culminates with Easter Sunday. Schools also take a two-week break.
Families use the free time to vacation. Beaches are popular. But many middle-class Mexicans, especially in the wealthier northern border states, travel to the United States to visit family and shop.
Last year during Holy Week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection processed more than 570,000 people at Arizona’s ports of entry, a 23 percent increase over the number of border crossers for an average week.
A gas station is usually a first stop, and the first contribution to Arizona’s economy.
The precise economic impact north of the border is unclear. No studies have focused on this specific period, and the dates change each year.
Southern Arizona businesses see the surge of visitors each year and hope to cash in, but some worry things could be different this year.
SueAnn Lemon manages four hotels in the Tucson area. She expects to sell out all of them as Mexican visitors flock to southern Arizona for Semana Santa or Holy Week. (Photo: Rafael Carranza/The Republic)
Each year, visitors from Mexico spend $2.5 billion in Arizona, according to U.S. trade data. A University of Arizona report found nearly three-quarters of that money stays in the state’s four border counties.
Since the start of the year, however, Mexicans have had to adjust to higher fuel prices and the rising costs of basic goods and services, leaving them with less spending money.
It’s one reason many choose to fuel up on the U.S. side on a nightly basis – a gallon of gasoline costs almost a dollar less.
A weaker peso has also created unfavorable exchange rates for Mexicans in recent months.
Add to that tensions over plans for President Donald Trump’s border wall and his rhetoric on Mexican immigration, which has provoked calls for boycotts of American brands, and some business owners in southern Arizona are worried they’ll see fewer Mexican shoppers this Semana Santa.
Businesses along the border that depend on Mexican shoppers struggled in the past Christmas holiday season, and some even considered closing after slower-than-expected sales.
“We saw a slight decline in the beginning of the year, and we were immediately concerned about that,” SueAnn Lemon said. Her company Focus Hospitality Management manages four hotels in the Tucson area.
They “are leisure hotels, and without the Mexico market coming up, whether for shopping or entertainment or medical, I just don’t know that we would even profit,” she said.
After historic declines following Trump’s inauguration and spat with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, the value of the peso has stabilized, and business has begun to pick up again, Lemon said.
She expected to sell out her hotels all week, leaving her company with a 30 percent increase in revenue compared to an average week.
“I don’t know what it was, if it was just an anomaly, or the peso or government, but today, right now, our hotels are performing well, and it is because of Semana Santa and the Mexico travelers are coming,” she said. “We’re pretty happy about that.”
Trail Dust Town is an Old West attraction on Tucson’s east side that includes shops, amusement rides, stunt shows and more. (Photo: Visit Tucson)
Some credit the increase in Mexican visitors in recent weeks to the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Felipe Garcia with Visit Tucson, the regional tourism organization.
“We had a lot of individuals call us and say, ‘Hey, we’re concerned,’ and they were coming to us asking what should we do. … So we actually got together and decided as a community to start a PR campaign in Mexico,” he said.
“These individuals, they’re crossing the border legally with their visas, they have money in their pockets, and they’re buying things out of here in the state of Arizona.”
Semana Santa is a vital period for the southern Arizona economy, according to Garcia, because it serves as a transition from the peak shopping season with winter visitors from the northern U.S. and Canada to the slower summer months.
“These individuals, they’re crossing the border legally with their visas, they have money in their pockets, and they’re buying things out of here in the state of Arizona,” he said. “They’re paying sales tax, so they’re helping pay for our police, our fire. They’re buying gas; that helps our streets, our schools, our libraries.”
Visit Tucson ran ads on television and social media with leaders such as Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothchild “saying we are proud of our relationship with Mexico, we celebrate the diversity of our communities, we want you to feel welcome here in southern Arizona,” Garcia said.
Over the past few months, southern Arizona business and elected leaders traveled to meet with their counterparts in Mexico. Garcia spent last week traveling the state of Sonora, the main source of Arizona’s international visitors.
Despite encouraging signs, it remains to be seen whether those efforts have paid off, Garcia said.
“If we remain flat this year, that’s really good news,” he added. “Because back in December, believe me, we were very concerned.”
There are indications some Mexicans are opting for destinations closer to home.
An hour south of the Arizona border, the resort town of Rocky Point has had one of the best starts of the year to date. With its sandy beaches, private resorts and easy access from the United States, the popular year-round destination is trending toward a 10 percent growth in visitors, which clocked in at 2.1 million last year.
That bodes well for local businesses in Semana Santa, said Hector Vasquez del Mercado, president of the Puerto Peñasco Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We ended the month of March with the same number of visitors as the previous year,” he said. “But with a slight difference: Last year, Holy Week fell on the the last weekend in March.”
During the two-week Easter holiday period, the bureau expects 150,000 visitors in Rocky Point. A vast majority, some 70 percent, will come from Mexico and the rest from Arizona and other U.S. states, Vasquez said.
“The price of gas has had a impact, more than anything along the border, and people who want to save will try to visit some place closer and therefore cheaper,” he said.
Vasquez added that most of the hotels in Rocky Point are at or near capacity this week.
Those visitors will spend $8.25 million during the holiday season, according to the bureau. Only Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends are equally profitable for them, he said.