:Your credit card: Don't leave home without it.
Especially if you're driving to Mexico for a little spring-break partying.
The Mexican government has imposed several restrictions on taking a vehicle beyond border towns, including a peculiar requirement that the owner of any vehicle must present a major credit card--VISA, American Express, Mastercard or Diner's Club--in order to buy a $10 transit pass.

No plastic; no travel pass; no party.
Well, almost. If you don't have a credit card, the owner of the vehicle can always post a cash bond at the border equivalent to 2 percent of the value of the car plus a $70 to $100 nonrefundable processing fee.

Once past the credit-card hurdle, several other key documents must be presented before a visitor can drive beyond the 12-mile free-trade zone along the border. These include the vehicle registration or title, a valid driver's license and proof of insurance, which must be purchased in Mexico. All of these documents must be in the name of the vehicle's owner.

In addition, if you owe money on the car, it's a good idea to get written permission from the lender to take the car into Mexico.

Don't bet on bluffing or buying your way through the process. The tough border restrictions have already turned back thousands of tourists who couldn't meet the standards. Sonoran tourism officials say business in hotels and resorts in Mexican border states is off 30 to 40 percent because of the travel restrictions.

"You could call it a full mess," said Nicolas Escalante, the Mexican consul in Phoenix. "Nothing is being done about it."
Tourism leaders from Mexican border states appealed to Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari last month, and the president said he would respond to their concerns about dwindling tourism within 30 days.

The vehicle restrictions were put in place to protect the Mexican automobile industry, which was suffering from a massive influx of American cars and trucks. Escalante said more than 1.6 million U.S. cars and trucks were being taken across the border and sold illegally in Mexico each year.

Cars can be purchased for far less in the United States and resold at a handsome profit in Mexico. A ten-year-old American-made car that was purchased new for $10,000 can still fetch $7,000 in Mexico.

Most of the American cars were being taken into Mexico by Mexican Americans, who would leave the cars with relatives or sell them to relatives in Mexico without paying import duties. At first the Mexican government put travel restrictions only on Mexican citizens and Mexican Americans entering Mexico. But a Mexican court ruled that was unconstitutional, so the government extended the restrictions to anyone crossing the border.

So why must travelers pay for the $10 transit pass with a credit card?
"They don't want to tempt the people working on the border stations to accept kickbacks or bribes," said Charles Watt of the Mexican Tourist Bureau.

The restrictions tend to be a bit onerous, but there is an upside: Some beaches actually resemble those enticing travel posters depicting miles of unspoiled sand awaiting only your footprints.

In Kino Bay, a popular wintering ground for American and Canadian retirees located about 60 miles west of Hermosillo, the ten-mile stretch of beach was nearly deserted during a typically busy time in late February.

While the beaches are pleasant, don't expect any bargains for food, gas and beer. Unleaded gasoline runs about $1.60 a gallon and bottled beer can be had for $2 a six-pack, plus a hefty bottle deposit.

"There are no deals anymore in Mexico, except for tortillas," said Steve Carruthers, a Flagstaff environmental consultant who has been going to Kino Bay in the winter for the past 30 years.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty