That’s the word from Travel + Leisure magazine, which recently released a list of places to visit in 2018 after consulting with their travel experts and surveying places at the “forefront of the global conversation.” There was New Mexico’s largest city, named as one of the 50 Best Places to Travel in 2018 – right up there with such places as Buenos, Aires, Argentina, Los Cabos, Mexico and Marrakesh, Morocco.
Albuquerque also recently received high-profile nods from Sunset Magazine and USA Today, spotlighting the city’s culture, cuisine, attractions and hotels.
The upbeat coverage dovetails with initiatives by tourism agencies at the city and state levels to promote travel here.
“Positive survey results definitely put Albuquerque on the radar of potential travelers,” said Visit Albuquerque CEO and President Tania Armenta at the group’s quarterly meeting, where T + L’s flattering profile of the city was generating buzz among attendees, including the city’s new mayor.
Mayor Tim Keller said the dollar impact of tourism “is absolutely critical” to the well-being of Albuquerque and the rest of the state. The city last year attracted 6.2 million visitors, and tourism is a $2 billion industry in Albuquerque, according to Visit Albuquerque. The sector employs more than 40,000 people in Bernalillo County and generates about $69 million in tax revenue.
“Tourism is one of our most effective economic development strategies. In no way is this lost on me,” said Keller.
The new VisitAlbuquerque.org is reflective of the refreshed Visit Albuquerque brand. The site redesign had a price tag of $80,000, and is responsive across desktop, tablet and mobile platforms. It also features a user-friendly setup, where visitors can easily find things to do, such as shopping, eating, checking out the microbreweries and taking in major attractions. The site also offers advertising opportunities for local businesses and a comprehensive events calendar.
The hospitality industry is big business statewide, and, based on the past few years, Rebecca Latham, cabinet secretary for tourim, expects travelers to open their wallets a little wider in 2018.
Direct visitor spending in New Mexico hit $6.4 billion statewide in 2016, a 2.1 percent increase over the previous year, according to the state Department of Tourism, which calculates that 92,000 jobs, or one in 12 statewide, is sustained by visitor spending, and tourism generated $642 million in state and local taxes in 2016. There is “every reason to believe New Mexico will continue to see improvements” once the 2017 data is crunched, Latham predicted.
The department is hoping to boost state tourism spending by $3.5 million in the coming fiscal year, from $12.6 million to $16.1 million, with the bulk of that money going to a tourism marketing initiative in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“San Francisco has a strong presence of our target group, ‘Venturesome Travelers,’ who are interested in what New Mexico has to offer, as well as the increased number of direct flights and competitive media costs,” said Latham.
The number of non-stop flights each day to Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Roswell from San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose now numbers six, up from two in 2012.
In a recent address to the Greater Albuquerque Innkeepers Association, Latham said the department’s ever-growing New Mexico True advertising campaign will highlight “the summer of the Mother Road,” focusing on attractions, lodgings and points of interest along Route 66, especially targeting international tourists eager to drive the highway.
Conventions are a strong priority for Visit Albuquerque, said Armenta, and the addition of more direct flights to Albuquerque should help. “It’s fantastic to see Alaska Airlines’ emergence in this market,” said Armenta, referring to added non-stop flights to Orange County, Portland and Seattle.
For 2018, Visit Albuquerque said citywide conventions and high-profile bookings so far “have an estimated spend of $80 million,” said Armenta. “And that’s just what we’ve lined up,” she said, adding that individual hotels and other tourism promoters also bring groups to the city and state.
One particularly high-profile event, the summer meeting of the National Governors Association, is expected to bring an estimated 1,300 attendees to Santa Fe July 18-22. The economic impact of the event could range from $3 million to $4 million, said Latham. While only 32 governors will be in attendance, the visitor roster includes spouses, staff members, security details and lobbyists, said Latham.
With an estimated 500 hotel rooms needed to accommodate attendees at a peak time for visitation, Latham is expecting some Albuquerque hotels will also benefit.
The American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, which is based in Albuquerque, is seeing the demand for Indian Country tourism grow. Overseas visitation increased from a low point of 693,000 when the organization started its international outreach in 2007 to 1.9 million in 2016.
“We hosted a Native-focused media FAM (familiarization) tour in New Mexico and Arizona last year with Italian travel media, and many of the pueblos participated including Acoma, Taos, Pojoaque and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center,” said Rachel Cromer Howard, a spokeswoman for AIANTA. “This category of also visitor stays longer and spends more,” said Howard, citing U.S. Department of Commerce data.
Tourism is clearly important to the bottom lines of New Mexico’s tribes and pueblos, which draw visitors to tribal attractions, casinos, resorts, museums and cultural events. Several are investing heavily.
Santa Ana Pueblo is spending $50 million to build a seven-story hotel adjacent to the Santa Ana Star Casino, and it recently spent $5 million on renovations to guest rooms at its Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa.
Meanwhile, Tesuque Pueblo plans to replace its existing casino near the Camel Rock, breaking ground last weekon a new one next door to the Santa Fe Opera. Construction is scheduled for completion by late 2018. Plans call for a new hotel at the site in a later phase.
Albuquerque hoteliers also are investing, and notably in high-end properties that have been attracting positive media coverage.
Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm has a new look, thanks to a $10 million renovation in 2017 that resulted in two new buildings that added 28 guest rooms to the existing 22. The project also includes a renovated bar and restaurant with a state-of-the-art kitchen, a refurbished retail shop and a new reception area. New gardens and landscaping were also part of the upgrade.
Hotel Chaco has been open for only six months in Albuquerque’s Old Town and was recently designated as one of the nation’s 10 best new hotels in 2017 by USA Today.
Heritage Hotels & Resorts, CEO Jim Long said his nine-property company has built a name for itself by acquiring hotels and renovating them to provide a uniquely New Mexican experience.With Hotel Chaco, the company was able design a unique property from the ground up, one inspired by ancient pueblo culture but designed with modern amenities.
The hotel was built at a cost of $40 million and employs 140 people.
Long said the company is aiming for five-star status for Hotel Chaco, targeting a luxury guest demographic for its 118 rooms. “It’s a traveler looking for a unique experience,” whether it’s art, culture, outdoor excursions or culinary offerings, said Long.
But the business hasn’t forgotten about the locals.
“It’s amazing how much people have enjoyed Level 5,” he said of the rooftop restaurant with panoramic views of the Sandia Mountains, Downtown skyline and historic Old Town.