LAREDO, Texas -- The city of Laredo has launched a campaign to lure visitors back by using billboards on Interstate 35 and other busy highways. The website promotes the border city as a safe destination.
”We have a huge misperception, a huge image issue," said Blasita Lopez, director of the Laredo Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “People believe that Laredo, Texas is experiencing the exact same things that are happening in our sister city that has a very similar name.”
Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas on the Mexican side of the border has become a crime-ridden drug war zone as the Zetas cartel battles to control smuggling routes in the area. Laredo, Texas, however, is among the safest cities of its size in the U.S.
“Laredo wanted to start a discussion through this campaign for a variety of reasons, not just for the impact the negative perception has had on our city as a tourism destination.”
Lopez said there is a need to clear up misconceptions, "because Laredo officials, business and civic leaders have struggled to promote the community, entice investors, recruit professionals to relocate, book acts for the various performance venues" and encourage visitors in general.
But businesses that rely on tourism hope the information campaign will convince visitors to make a trip to Laredo. "We’re trying to encourage people. Laredo is safe. Come visit us," said Raymond Camina who owns the Basket and Pottery Alley.
Laredo was once a popular destination for Texans and tourists alike, who flocked to the border to shop, eat and experience Mexico.
But a spike in drug violence in Mexico has scared people away and hurt tourism in U.S. cities that benefited from their proximity to the border.
Camina says he's seen sales drop by nearly half in recent years.
“We‘ve had customers who call, ‘Is it safe to go to Laredo? I hear it’s very unsafe. There are Mexican soldiers in your streets.’ No, Not at all,” Camina tells them. The troops are in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Camina stocked his shop with authentic handicrafts from Mexico to give customers the flavor of that country, minus the trip across the border.
Even so, some tourists confuse the two Laredos -- especially after passing through a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint on the highway.
“We take it for granted but somebody from out of state doesn’t even have any checkpoints. So when they saw that, they thought they were in Mexico,” said Camina.
He recalled one woman who called asking for an escort to the store.
“And I said 'Where are you?'" The woman was staying at a hotel next door. "She said, 'I’m scared of the Zetas.’ I said there are no Zetas here," Camina said.
The mayor of Laredo spearheaded the new website complete with “myth busters” about the city, including that it’s in the middle of a war zone.
The website lists FBI crime statistics for Laredo.
“This community has lower crime statistics than major metro areas in Texas and the U.S.,” said Lopez..
Even so, some visitors need to be reminded the city is in Texas not Mexico, Lopez said.
“Some of them ask, ‘Do I have to show you a passport?’ That’s probably one of the strangest questions that we’ve received.”