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Mexican border town resorts to tequila festival to boost tourism

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The once bustling streets of jovial, persistent merchants beckoning tourists into their shops in this Mexican town, just over the Arizona border, are mostly quiet these days, the familiar mix of Spanish and English conversation a thing of the past.

Across the US-Mexico divide, brutal drug violence has badly bruised border tourism. Even here in Nogales, with a tourist district literally two blocks from the US, the center is empty.

So city planners are sponsoring yet another public event – this one a three-day tequila festival that begins today, showcasing Mexico's traditional drink, along with mariachis, dance performances, and a classic car show – in an attempt to boost confidence, especially among Americans, that a visit to the town is indeed not a death sentence.

“We’d like Americans to come see for themselves that maybe Nogales is not as bad as some people say,” says Jorge Valenzuela, who was hired as the city’s first tourism director late last year.

City officials are in many ways working harder than they ever have, dreaming of new events to promote the positives of Nogales. In late 2010, they began to revive the city’s ailing tourism sector in earnest with the opening of a visitors center, street improvements, the installment of security cameras, and the addition of police patrols. This year, the chamber of commerce launched a “Let’s speak well of Nogales” campaign to help burnish the city’s image.

“We never really had to promote the city before but now we do,” said chamber director Marcela Freig Couvillier before that campaign began.

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