JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – Jose Luis Rodriguez has done the math and whenever he needs to take care of a minor health ailment, he crosses the border into Juarez rather than request an appointment with his doctor in the U.S.
“If you feel ill, of course, you come here because it is cheaper. Over there, the appointment will end up running you upwards of $100. Here, you pay 500 pesos (U.S. $26),” the Socorro, Texas, resident said.
Medical tourism is up in Juarez after a couple of slim years brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dental offices, general medicine practitioners and some specialty surgeons are the ones benefiting the most.
“The services more in demand are dental, because they are more economical – and because some U.S. insurers will cover them – and bariatric surgery or plastic surgery because the wait times are shorter,” said Dr. Lorenzo Soberanes, head of the medical tourism cluster at the Juarez Chamber of Commerce. “American protocols force patients to go to nutritionists, to go to psychologists, and what the patient wants is to have the surgery now.”
Juarez dental offices advertise root canal surgery for under $200, fillings under $60 and porcelain crowns as cheap as $300.
“This is a great source of income for our city. We do get visitors from all over (the United States), but the bulk of those who come are (Hispanics) who were born here, moved north but continue to patronize our establishments,” Soberanes said. “There is a lot to be said for the personalized approach, the warmth and service they find here as opposed to the impersonal ‘fill out these forms’ approach over there.”
All post-pandemic tourism, not just medical, is up in Juarez despite some challenges, said Edibray Gomez Gallegos, tourism director for the state of Chihuahua. Average hotel occupancy, for instance, has gone from 30 percent in 2019 to 75 percent last year, he said.
“Juarez is the top destination for visitors to our state. Not only do we have medical tourism and business tourism because of our factories and export industry, but we are also the gateway to the United States. Migration-related tourism is very strong,” Gomez said this week during a visit to Juarez.
By migration-related, Gomez means the tens of thousands of Mexican citizens who book appointments at the American consulate in Juarez for immigrant and non-immigrant visas, including 10-year border crossing cards.
According to U.S. State Department data, a quarter of a million people – almost all of them Mexican citizens – were issued visas yearly at that one consulate in the 2010s. The volume dropped dramatically during the pandemic, but as Gomez points out, it is on the rise again.
The consulate in Juarez leads the entire Western Hemisphere in the number of U.S. immigrant visas issued.
Soberanes said “consular tourism” typically involves people flying into Juarez from the interior of Mexico a day or two before their appointment, spending money on hotels, meals and cabs. In the case of immigrant or permanent residence visa applications, the process may involve medical exams provided by doctors and laboratories vetted by the State Department.
Gomez and Soberanes said tourism providers will try to build on the momentum. Both acknowledge the obvious challenge of overcoming Juarez’s international perception as a city rife with violent drug cartel activity.
“Unfortunately, the impact of violence in our city has been very strong,” Soberanes said, adding that it’s not just an individual’s fear that keeps him or her from crossing the border into Mexico, but also U.S. corporate policies.
He mentioned how plans for a medical convention in Juarez were hindered by some doctors from Houston saying their employer would not let them cross the border. Some of the city’s top hospitals struggle to lure specialists from other places in Mexico, also because the providers fear for their safety in Juarez.
“We offer them higher salaries, good housing, car loans and guarantee their children will be going to a good school. Still, sometimes their families will tell them, ‘What if they kidnap you? What if they assault you?’ So it is not just abroad, but also here that such a (reputation) affects us,” he said.
Aside from the occasional random crime – such as hijacking and burning of private vehicles after a cartel leader is arrested – that the State Department has alerted U.S. citizens in Juarez, tourism advocates say Juarez is safe for visitors.
“You could put dots on a map of where violent acts take place and you will see they are in very specific areas,” Soberanes said. “Most of it takes place in (low-income) neighborhoods in the south or southeast of the city,” while areas frequented by tourists are hardly ever affected.