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Vaccine tourists from Mexico City help Texas town economy

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, Texas — A Texas border city hopes to stimulate its hurting economy through “vaccine tourism,” an initiative that allows Mexican citizens to fly in, get their coronavirus vaccine, and potentially spend big money at local businesses. Just three weeks in, local leaders are already deeming it a major success.

The project rolled out as a way to help small businesses in downtown Laredo that have been hurting amid the coronavirus pandemic, more so than other businesses in the United States. At the start of the pandemic, U.S. border officials shut down all crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Officials cut off nonessential American and Mexican travelers from the other side of the international boundary, including family visitors, shoppers, and tourists. The move had a drastic effect on mom and pop shops in Laredo, where Mexican shoppers make up roughly half of their customers. As a result, approximately 150 businesses have closed in Laredo.

“The economic state here on the border, Laredo, is particularly very depressed,” the city's Democratic mayor, Pete Saenz, told the Washington Examiner.

The high vaccination rate put the city of 260,000 people in a position to do something unusual to get the economy going. City officials dreamed up using Mexican airline Aeromar to run an air shuttle from Mexico City to Laredo. Mexicans could book vaccine appointments ahead of time to ensure they could receive one while in town, and they could return home to Mexico City that same day — or they could choose to stay several days and make a vacation out of it. Those who travel into the U.S. can even get their shot at the airport and not have to leave the building. It is the first type of vaccine initiative on the southern border.

“We’re trying to make it a healthy situation, you know, utilize our surplus of vaccines that we have to try to keep everybody healthy, especially in a border situation like this where, you know, we're so intermingled,” said Jeff Miller, director of the Laredo International Airport. “I think having both countries healthy is a benefit for everyone.”

The vaccine tourism project launched in mid-May after the Texas attorney general's office approved the idea. Since then, the flights to Laredo have been around 70%-80% full, according to Miller. Three round-trip flights come in and go out every week, bringing in about 800 people. Miller estimated as many as 600 of the passengers are getting vaccinated while in Laredo. However, health laws forbid the airport or city from collecting that information, so there is no official number.

“The planes are just full of people coming in from Mexico,” Cuellar said. “That's a win-win for our local community. ... That helps, of course, the local economy, and that helps, of course, the local taxes, sales taxes that are collected.”