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A banner year for NM tourism

This ad is part of the New Mexico Tourism Department’s “Lowrider Capital of the World” campaign. The series shows off iconic cars from Española and elsewhere in the state. (New Mexico Tourism Department)

New Mexico Tourism Secretary Jen Paul Schroer

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Visitors to New Mexico spent more money in the state in 2018 than ever before, according to newly released numbers from the New Mexico Tourism Department.

State Tourism Secretary Jen Paul Schroer released the 2018 numbers and priorities for the growing industry during a presentation to Albuquerque business leaders Wednesday morning.

She told the Economic Forum that there were a record-breaking 36.6 million overnight trips to New Mexico and that visitors spent a record $7.1 billion, up 7% over the previous year.

“It’s not just highs and lows,” Schroer told the audience. “We have seen sustained, steady growth.”

Schroer said the growth in tourism has an impact beyond full hotels and crowded restaurants, as the industry generated $694 million in state and local taxes in 2018. And Schroer said a growing tourism sector can bring other types of economic development to New Mexico and help the state’s economy become less reliant on oil and gas.

“Tourism is part of that piece of diversifying our economy,” she said, “but it’s also elevating our brand awareness across the entire nation.”

And that is sorely needed, she said, adding that potential visitors still call the office asking whether they need a passport to travel here and whether they can drink the water once they arrive.

A larger trend

The positive numbers last year were part of a larger trend.

Since 2009, New Mexico’s leisure and hospitality sector, which includes tourism and tourism-adjacent employment, has added jobs at a higher rate than any industry other than mining and logging, which includes the oil and gas industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Additionally, visitor spending in New Mexico has increased 23% since 2013.

Schroer said 2018, which saw the largest single-year jump in visitation since 2011, was a special year. With more visitors coming to the state, the statewide occupancy rate at hotels increased by nearly 4%, and the average daily room rate across the state rose by more than 8%.

Good year in ABQ too

Data for 2019 is not yet available, but Schroer said the initial returns are promising. Lodging tax returns are currently up 7% for Albuquerque hotels.

While Schroer didn’t highlight specific events or parts of the state in her presentation, metro Albuquerque also posted strong growth in 2018. Earlier this year, Visit Albuquerque announced that lodging tax collections during its last fiscal year, which ended June 30, increased nearly 11% over the prior 12 months.

Tania Armenta, president and CEO of Visit Albuquerque, said Wednesday the city and state have done a good job of moving beyond the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and building tourism in New Mexico into more of a year-round process.

“People are starting to think (about) tourism more than just this month,” Armenta said.

Armenta added that this year’s Balloon Fiesta appears to have been a tremendous success, though the agency is still awaiting official figures for the event.

Of the $7.1 billion generated statewide, $2.3 billion went toward lodging, $1.6 billion was spent on food and beverages, $1.2 billion on retail and $899 million on outdoor recreation. Schroer credited New Mexico’s growing outdoor recreation industry as a driver for a lot of the trips to the Land of Enchantment.

Another key to the recent success has been working with local organizations to identify and highlight hidden local gems. Schroer referenced the yet-to-open Lowrider Museum in Española, which the Tourism Department helped fund through a Rural Pathway Project grant, as a project with the potential to highlight an often-overlooked part of New Mexico culture for visitors.

“They want to experience what we, a lot of times, take for granted,” she said.

Schroer said bringing more people to New Mexico helps the state achieve its broader economic development goals.

Improving state’s image

Schroer sprinkled her talk with tourism commercials produced by her department, including a colorful one on the lowrider museum. Each of them stressed the agency’s “New Mexico True” tagline. Schroer credited former and current creative staff for producing the eye-catching videos, and touted the fact that the department won an award for video storytelling from a national marketing organization, beating out state agencies with much larger budgets.

Survey data from the department showed that respondents who visited New Mexico and saw tourism ads were more likely to feel the state is a desirable place to live, start a business and attend college than those who didn’t.

“That way, our economic developers … aren’t starting from scratch in explaining where New Mexico is,” Schroer said. “We’re on the map.”

The department is looking for ways to grow without overwhelming rural communities and natural resources, she said. The state is working on a long-term plan to address infrastructure and other challenges, and the department is looking for additional funding next year to address staff shortages.

Above all, Schroer said she wants the industry to grow without shedding New Mexico’s reputation for authenticity.

“We are not Mickey Mouse, we don’t want to be Mickey Mouse, we don’t want people to come here expecting Mickey Mouse,” Schroer said. “We want to find people who really want an authentic experience.”

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