TUCSON — Sen. Martha McSally and Rep. Greg Stanton introduced companion bills to create a pilot program that would allow visitors from Mexico to travel throughout Arizona, potentially generating up to nearly $1 billion in additional tourist spending over the next five years.
Mexican visitors with a Border Crossing Card are allowed to travel up to 75 miles inside Arizona without having to apply for a I-94 permit and paying a $6 fee. That means that, aside from the state's border cities, cardholders from Mexico essentially are barred from traveling beyond Tucson, which is located 60 miles north of Nogales.
McSally and Stanton's bills, dubbed the Southwest Tourism Expansion Act, would eliminate the need for a permit and fee by creating a five-year pilot program that would be specific to Arizona. It would allow Mexican visitors to travel anywhere in the state, including popular sites such as the Grand Canyon or Antelope Canyon in the northern part of the state.
"Arizona is open for business and when we allow approved visitors into more areas of our beautiful state, we unleash the potential for greater economic growth, more jobs, and additional sales tax revenue," McSally said in a written statement.
The bills have already drawn bipartisan support from Arizona's congressional legislation, as well as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey who touted the proposal as "win-win" for Arizona's relationship with Mexico.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., joined her Republican colleague as a co-sponsor in the Senate version. Meanwhile, Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., signed on to Stanton's House bill as a co-sponsor.
Stanton, who has pushed since his time as Phoenix mayor for changes to allow Mexican visitors to travel around the state without an additional permit, called his legislative proposal an "economic stimulus bill" as well as a "common-sense change" that would result in greater benefits, economically and otherwise.
"Our state benefits in so many ways from a strong relationship with Mexico," Stanton said in a written statement. "And a pilot program that invites Mexican nationals to explore and invest more throughout our entire state can only strengthen those ties."
The Arizona Office of Tourism reported that 3.8 million Mexican nationals visited Arizona for leisure in 2018, spending an average of $839 per overnight trip to cities all over the state, but mostly in Tucson and Phoenix.
The proposed change enjoys strong support from both state and local governments as well as economic groups around the state. The expansion has also been the subject of several studies to measure its potential impact.
The most recent report from 2015 was commissioned by the Maricopa Association of Governments and conducted by the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management's Economic and Business Research Center.
It projected that Mexican visitors would spend $2.9 billion in Arizona in 2016, with nearly a third of that money staying in Tucson and Pima County, according to tourism officials.
The report concluded that extending the travel limit to the entire state could generate up to $181 million in additional spending each year. That means that the pilot program created by the Southwest Tourism Expansion Act potentially could bring in an additional $905 million for the five-year duration of the program.
Once the pilot program concludes, the results would be assessed to make a determination about the program, according to Stanton's office.
Such changes wouldn't be unprecedented; in the past, the federal government has taken executive action to change the travel boundaries. The bills would be the first legislative attempt at changes, even though it would be a fixed-period of time.
The travel limit for Border Crossing Card holders in Arizona was expanded in 1999 from 25 to 75 miles. New Mexico's travel limit was expanded to 55 miles in 2013.
But the pilot-program under McSally and Stanton's legislation would be the largest expansion, because it would extend to the entire state of Arizona.