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South Texas businesses, towns can’t wait for border travel to resume next month

Border Report

'Once they open it we'll be back to normal,' McAllen veteran says

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Shop owners Kish Mansinghani and his wife, Shanu, have operated perfume stores on the South Texas border for 37 years, from Laredo to McAllen. But, they have never experienced sales drop as low as this past year and a half when travel restrictions were put in place to help stop the spread of coronavirus between Mexico and the United States.

Now the couple is rejoicing after learning Wednesday that travel restrictions will be lifted in November at land ports for Mexican shoppers who are fully vaccinated.

“We’ve been waiting for a year and a half for the tourists to come from Mexico. We’ve been kind of getting by. It’s been really tough and on top of the COVID. So we are happy to hear they are going to let them in,” Kish told Border Report Wednesday.

Kish Mansinghani and his wife, Shanu, have operated perfume stores on the South Texas border for 37 years. They are seen in their downtown McAllen, Texas, shop on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, and were happy to learn border restrictions would be lifted in November. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

He is president and COO of La Perfumeria, a shop in downtown McAllen. He says 10 stores on Main Street where his shop is located have shut down since travel restrictions began in March 2020 under the Trump administration.

He said sales at his shop have been down 80%.

“Mainly we were built to sell to Mexico but thank God we are in a metropolitan area with 1.2 million people and the locals have supported us and we have survived,” he said as he restocked shelves with colorful boxes of name-brand designer perfumes.

“Thank God they are going to open Mexico. We’ve been doing this for 37 years and we never saw anything like this,” he said.

“It’s been too long, too long,” Shanu added.

Groups of downtown shoppers in McAllen, Texas, peruse shops on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. Crowds should increase once Mexican tourists are allowed to cross the border next month to shop. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

This month typically starts the Christmas shopping season for shops on the border, but without the onslaught of Mexican shoppers coming from border towns, sales have remained slow along the South Texas border and even into bigger cities, like San Antonio, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose hometown is the border city of Laredo, said Wednesday.

“Whether it’s downtown Laredo or any part of the border, this basically means that they will get their shoppers back, which means this will be a very good Christmas,” said Cuellar, vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.

Traffic at the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge in South Texas has dropped, lowering revenues for municipalities that rely on the tolls. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

In addition, South Texas border communities are hurting from a lack of international bridge traffic that brings in revenue to help fund local municipalities, police and fire, leaders told Border Report.

Since travel restrictions were enacted, only “essential” workers, students or medical personnel have been allowed to cross the border from Mexico and Canada into land and sea ports.

Lunchtime shoppers in McAllen, Texas, are seen on Oct. 13, 2021. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Travelers for months have been allowed to fly into U.S. airports, but that hasn’t helped border businesses much, which typically rely on shoppers walking or driving across from northern Mexican border town to buy their goods.

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“This is welcome news. I have long said our region’s path to economic recovery from the setback of the pandemic is with the help of our neighbors in Mexico. Past economic data shows that Mexican travelers in our region account for a large percentage of our consumer sales. We need to reclaim that level of economic activity to emerge from the pandemic in a strong economic position,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said.

“I feel ecstatic!” Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz said Wednesday. “It’s great news. It’s really great news for the border area. So many businesses have been impacted heavily in the downtown Laredo area that depend so much on the Mexican shoppers. We’re just waiting for that day.”

Cuellar told Border Report that prior to the pandemic, an estimated 18 million Mexican shoppers visited the United States annually and spent $19 billion.

Al Mendarez, a veteran who lives in McAllen, Texas, was excited that Mexican shoppers will soon be returning to the border town after 19 months of travel restrictions. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“We are losing a lot of money,” veteran Al Mendarez said Wednesday as he shopped in downtown McAllen. “Once they open it we’ll be back to normal.”

“We’re finally after so long going to get some of those customers back. A lot of our businesses still need those Mexican shoppers,” said Mike Marasco, chairman of the board for the Laredo Chamber of Commerce.

Leaders up and down the Texas border often talk about the economic symmetry that sister border cities experience. Most are viewed as part of the same metropolitan statistical areas. This includes:

  • McAllen and Reynosa, Mexico, with its thriving maquiladora industry.
  • Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and Laredo, Texas, both transportation hubs with over 16,000 commercial trucks crossing daily at the World Trade Bridge.
  • Pharr, Texas, and the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas — the Pharr International Bridge is the No. 1 produce-crossing bridge in the United States, where 65% of the nation’s produce comes across from Mexico.

But even so, traffic on the Pharr bridge was down almost 12% in August, from the previous year, according to the last numbers available from the City of Pharr.

Car crossings were down a whopping 41% in August from the previous year.

Graphic by City of McAllen

Tolls at the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge were down substantially in fiscal 2021, with some months seeing revenues cut by half, the city of McAllen reported. Pedestrians crossings were down 25% and car traffic was down 17%.

In July, toll revenues were $307,697 under budget, and administrators managed to cut operating expensive to help offset a reduction in tolls brought in, according to a city bridge report.

Traffic at the Anzalduas International Bridge, leading to Mission, Texas, also was down most months this past fiscal year.

Sam Vale is majority shareholder for the Rio Grande City-Camargo International Bridge. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

Sam Vale, president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company and a majority owner in the private bridge company, told Border Report he believes that reopening the bridges to all who are vaccinated will help Starr County, which is the second-poorest county in Texas.

“It is a good start. Now we must develop systems to expand vaccinations at each port of entry,” Vale said Wednesday. “Finally, we need to provide booster shots to border crossers.”

The spokeswoman for Rio Grande City said they were collaborating with a school district in Reynosa, which wants to work together to help Mexican students get COVID-19 vaccinations.

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