April Reese recently wrote an article for The Guardian titled People think it’s not safe – nature tourism takes hit over Trump wall policy published on March 22, 2019. 

For her story, she interviewed several people including Texas Birding chairman and Alamo Inn B&B proprietor Keith Hackland and me; Texas Birding director. 

How will a new wall affect the eco-tourism of your area? she asked. The first thought that came to my mind is that the Valley has already been affected by the rhetoric surrounding the campaigns both in favor and against the building of a wall in the Rio Grande Valley. “The constant rhetoric of bad people or criminals or terrorists coming across the border is really affecting us,” I said adding “people think it’s not safe. But that is not the case. When they come here, they realize it’s wonderful.” 

In my very humble opinion, the Valley is like a child of divorced parents engaged in a custody battle. Both stand to lose regardless of who wins the dispute. The child will lose a family and the Valley the reputation it deserves. The reputation for which tourism professionals in the Valley work so hard to build. A reputation as a fast-growing, prosperous, warm, friendly region with numerous cultural and natural resources to offer. 

What surprised me the most is when April said she never heard the issue approached that way. She was seeking information about the destruction of birding habitats, wildlife and the like. I informed her that I was not the right person to provide this information, but that I could provide the names of those who could. In her story, April wrote “18 ft steel bollard fence” to describe the proposed wall, and Facebook commenters noted the mistake. The wall is planned to be over 30 feet tall. This is an important fact, but totally misses the point I was hoping to make.

A taller wall will not change the perception of the Valley being a dangerous place. Regardless of the planned wall’s size, shape, material, the Valley’s reputation has been compromised. Because of my job, I hear about it daily through emails of people asking if it is a good idea to plan a trip to the RGV, people stopping at our booths at trade shows expressing their concern, posts on social media, etc. I’ve even heard of potential investors reconsidering investing in the Valley. Keith is quoted in the same article about the challenges his B&B is facing due to the negative rhetoric surrounding the wall issue. The numbers of birders visiting the Valley are down at his place and nearby nature parks. We hope to have precise figures by the end of this year. 

The problem up until now have been words! Yes. Words. Printed, spoken on TV, reported, posted on social media, shouted at rallies, you name it. On one side we hear words such as criminals, terrorists, invasion, vandalism, crisis, crime. On the other one we hear destruction, bulldozing of green spaces, loss of habitat, animal species in peril, and about the potential closing of nature parks. People hear and read these words. Who will want to visit a dangerous, bare land? The wall might not ever be built but the dispute has already affected us. That was the point I was trying to make. 

What can you do about it, asked April. We will keep writing good stories about the Valley, increase the participation at nature tourism trade shows and keep hosting writers and birders from outside the Valley, the state and even the country. Last night I had dinner with a British birder who we invited on a fam tour to visit the Valley and other communities in Texas. He is here because he wants to bring birding tours to Texas. Like most of the rest of the world, he is curious about the wall issue and he will be visiting parks along the river. 

Now that a real crisis is developing on our border, how are we going to tackle this? The Valley will be in the news all over the country, we are becoming a household name. One more time, the possibility of adding to the negative rhetoric opens, for now we are a region dealing with a humanitarian crisis. This on top of the perception of being dangerous and deprived of green spaces and wildlife. C’mon Nydia, you might say, but I quote tourism guru and my mentor Dr. Peter Tarlow: “The further a person is from the locale the worse the “incident” appears to be,” and “perceptions may not be true, but their consequences are always true.”

What words and actions will come out of the Valley regarding this issue? Sister Norma Pimentel comes to my mind because the story about her compassionate work circled the world. She portrayed the Valley in a positive way. 

The Valley’s main tourism markets are the Mexican shoppers with over one billion-dollar economic impact in McAllen alone according to the McAllen CVB, the Winter Texans with an impact of $528 million in nominal dollars as reported by UTRGV, and birding and nature visitors impacting our economy with a $463 million estimated average per year based on a 2012 report by Texas A&M. We estimate this number to be higher but do not have exact data. 

In recent years, we have seen a decline in all these three markets due to various circumstances. The decline on the retiree and birding marketsis, for the most part, related to perceptions mentioned before. It is likely that Mexican shoppers will not be deterred by fear and will continue to visit our area. What we do know is that the refugee crisis at the border is responsible for extremely long wait times at our international bridges. Waiting times of three, four and even five hours are being reported due to a shortage of customs and immigration officials at the bridge. Many of these officers have been reassigned to work with asylum seekers across the US/Mexico border. I can’t help but wonder if visitors from Monterrey will choose to skip these long lines and jump on a plane to San Antonio or Houston. 

In The Guardian’s story, Keith talks about new bird species that have shown up in the Valley this year. There are several and this is an important development, yet fewer birdwatchers are here to enjoy them. We hope both return next year; the birds and the birders. We know the birds will keep coming regardless of a wall because we are at an “ecological crossroads” wrote April, but maybe that will change too. The Valley could lose some of its most beautiful parks and we could lose endangered mammal species such as the ocelot and jaguarondi. But there is no doubt life will go on. The landslide of passionate words for political gain or advocacy cannot be stopped. So, what do we do? April’s question still resonates, and I still don’t have a complete answer to that. 

I invite all the Valley’s communities to join and support the mission of Texas Birding. For more information please visit TexasBirding.org 

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column is provided by the Rio Grande Valley Butterfly Festival.