MATAMOROS, Mexico — The sidewalks are empty on Alvaro Obregon Avenue. Restaurants and souvenir shops lining the once popular thoroughfare are gutted and shuttered. The sign in front of an abandoned karaoke bar is now ripped and dilapidated, riddled underneath with three spray-painted tombstones.
The thousands of spring breakers who flooded over each March from the nearby Texas resorts are gone. The drug war drove them off, leaving a void of tourism in a city that years ago gave up trying to cater to such crowds.
But in the midst of a three-year increase in American tourism in Mexico, communities along the Rio Grande see potential to win back some of the tourists and revitalize an industry that has gone dormant since the cartel violence erupted south of the border.
In Matamoros, a new tourism director is pouring $2 million into luring Mexican visitors for Holy Week in April, with an eye toward implementing a similar plan next year that would focus on spring breakers who flock to South Padre Island, Texas.
"We used to see waves of people along the main boulevard," said Julio Mejia, who took over as tourism director in December. "But the area wasn't promoted properly."
Matamoros, nestled just south of the Texas border and along the Gulf of Mexico, plans to open a children's water park and build a pier at Costa Azul beach to attract tourists from nearby Coahuila and Nuevo Leon states. A more detailed plan will be worked out later for how to attract American tourists next year, but a pivotal part of the endeavor will involve working with business owners to reopen their restaurants and bars.
The city previously attracted thousands of spring breakers from South Padre Island for the "Two Nation Vacation," but the number of such visitors began dwindling in 2005 as drug violence started making international headlines and U.S. authorities later began warning against traveling into northern Mexico. By 2010, it became rare to see a young American vacationer visiting this city's tourist district.
And although violence in some border cities has quelled, spring breakers remain hesitant to take any chances this year.
David Lynch, an Eastern Kentucky University senior visiting South Padre Island this week, says he still sees too much news about Mexican violence and "won't be crossing into Mexico."
Jackie Raichandani, a University of Louisville senior also planning to visit South Padre, suggested to his friends that they go to Matamoros. "Some want to try it," he says, "but others told me no way they are going."
These sentiments echo what's plain from the statistics: While more Americans are returning to popular destinations such as Mexico City, Cancun and Los Cabos, the border communities have yet to see significant rebounds. Mexico's tourism agency reports a 9 percent increase in Americans visiting Mexico in 2013, but a steady decline in border tourists from 10 million in 2011 to 9.5 million last year.
The declines are being felt from this Gulf Coast community to the West Coast, where Rosarito Beach south of the California border is no longer a mecca for Spring Breakers due to a turf war between rival drug gangs that sent business plummeting in the last decade.
But as drug-fueled bloodshed subsided in recent years the region's tourism industry hired a U.S. public relations firm and is attracting an increased number of wealthier, middle-aged travelers seeking world-class cuisine and wines in Tijuana and nearby Valle de Guadalupe, which is often called Mexico's Napa Valley.
The business climate is bleaker in Matamoros. Its once-thriving tourist market now only offers a few vendors, while nearby a massive complex that houses a pharmacy, a crafts market, a bar and a restaurant remains in business but is seeing less of it.
"If I see a group of three or four spring breakers, I will have to take a picture with them because that would be a rare sighting," Raul Garcia, general manager of the Garcia's complex, said as two customers perused his souvenir shop packed with colorful clay dolls, ceramic vases and plates.
"It will be difficult (to get them back), but we need to let people know people still live, work and have fun here."
In a sign that fear may be easing, parade participants from nearby Brownsville, Texas, crossed last week into Matamoros to join the annual Charro Days festivities. Such scenes were common several years ago, when floats decorated with the U.S. and Mexican flags, dancing horses and marching bands would parade through Brownsville and cross the bridge to join participants in Matamoros' parade. Together they would march and dance down the city's main avenue toward downtown, where the binational celebration lasted for hours.
Even in Ciudad Juarez, where killings have declined from 3,075 in 2010 to 483 last year, officials are making efforts to increase border crossings from El Paso, Texas. Once dubbed the most violent city in the hemisphere, Juarez has opened a visitors' center in El Paso and plans to offer shuttle services from there by the end of this year.
But authorities north of the border are not swayed. A State Department travel advisory cautioning Americans about visiting Mexico remains in place as cities still deal with cartel violence that has kept heavily armed soldiers patrolling the Mexican border.
The Texas Department of Public Safety also cautions the thousands of Spring Breakers visiting the state this month to stay put, as it has the last few years.
"We have a responsibility to inform the public about safety and travel risks and threats," the state agency said in a statement, citing the "the unpredictable nature of cartel violence and other criminal elements."
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