BOQUILLAS, Coahuila, Mexico — A formal border crossing opened a few weeks ago along the Texas-Mexico border. It links a remote Mexican village with Big Bend National Park in West Texas. Villagers on the Mexican side, in the tiny village of Boquillas, hope the crossing will bring back the tourists who sustained their economy in the past, and they're already working to rebuild the tourist infrastructure.
Ivan Sanchez, 21, his face burnished by the sun, stands on a dusty cliff that spills into the Rio Grande. The United States is just steps away and is framed by a Grand Canyon-esque tableau that dwarfs Boquillas. Sanchez' boss, Bernardo Robles, is renovating a faded stone structure for tourists.
Robles said he believes Boquillas can anchor a reborn economy — by funneling tourists into the red rock wilderness that flanks Boquillas and two nearby villages.
Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 20,000 visitors a year propped up the local economy. People crossed back and forth with ease and few formalities. But now everyone here knows who Osama Bin Laden is. After the attacks in New York and Washington, the border here was sealed, the economy gutted. The new border crossing is bringing hope, and outside help.
In September, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an agency financed by Canada, the U.S. and Mexico under the NAFTA free trade agreement, awarded a 10 month, $100,000 contract to a Washington, D.C. consulting company, Solimar International. The contract calls for Solimar to promote sustainable tourism in and around Boquillas. Nine months into the contract, Solimar says it has drafted a business plan for a community-owned co-op to offer guides for back country trips.
That enterprise right now appears to be a two-room office with racks of pamphlets. A couple of people sitting around apologize that they’re not fully open yet. At least one group of tourists has been told guides are not yet available.
Solimar’s consultant on the Boquillas project is Ernesto Hernandez, a native of Veracruz, in southern Mexico.
“Tourists, sustainable tourists is the alternative to develop the economy for these communities,” Hernandez said. He believes the tourist industry here will change. “It’s going to be more organized. It is a big potential opportunity to show them Mexico in a cultural way and also at the same time develop some good economic interests or both sides.”
When the border crossing opened a few weeks ago, Solimar held what appeared to be an impromptu meeting with a dozen villagers. They were asked, "This is an economic development project, right?” Villagers nodded.
“We’ve spoken about conservation, improving life here, yes or no?" The reply: Si.
On the street, I ask a villager, Soccoro Limon, what does the group do ?
"I can't really say," she says in Spanish.
Boquillas today is a shell of its former self. Three hundred people then, and 90 now. But Boquillas exudes charm and a certain innocence, a legacy of its extreme isolation, and people here redefine the concept of hospitality.
But more than a few are skeptical about outsiders telling them how to deal with the hoped-for influx of tourists. Several are already sprucing up rooms to rent out and three guides told visitors to contact them directly.
Other villagers bristle, saying they don’t want outsiders fixing what they don’t believe is broken.
A man says, ‘Before 9-11 we dealt with tourists ourselves. We didn’t have rules, we never had issues with tourism.”
Now, he said "we have to get permission from someone."
Preparations for visitors are one thing. But right now, not enough tourists are coming to make a difference.
Solimar’s contract expires next month.
If Boquillas is to become a model for rescuing broken border economies, villagers say it needs one thing; more visitors.