'Tourism stopped — it literally did' - Albuquerque Journal

‘Tourism stopped — it literally did’

A passenger walks past closed stores and restaurants at the Albuquerque International Sunport. The airport has had a 50% decrease in traffic due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Streets are empty.

Museums are closed.

Restaurants offer takeout only.

All parts of the state feel like a ghost town.

Tourism is definitely taking a hit in New Mexico.

The tourism industry is one of the state’s largest economic drivers – second only to the oil and gas industry.

In 2018, New Mexico’s tourism industry experienced a banner year, with visitors spending $7.1 billion here. The state also logged 36.6 million overnight trips.

To bring in those billions, government and private businesses spend millions each year attempting to lure visitors.

In late March, the New Mexico Department of Tourism suspended its spring national campaign – New Mexico True. The state has spent more than $60 million on the successful program, created in 2012, which touts experiences as well as events, promoting the state’s popular tourist attractions on billboards and in commercials in Texas, Arizona, New York and Illinois.

But even before the suspension, the COVID-19 restrictions that began to be imposed in mid-March had already slowed the well-oiled machine to a near stop.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham put a halt to large gatherings March 12, which had the immediate effect of canceling the NCAA Division I Indoor Track and Field Championships. The annual meet was scheduled for March 14-15 at the Albuquerque Convention Center.

“Athletes were already in town and ready to compete,” said Tania Armenta, president and CEO of Visit Albuquerque. “Then it came to an abrupt stop.”

That was just the beginning. In the seven weeks since the emergency health measures were put into place, tourism throughout the country and in New Mexico has plummeted.

“You see this drastic decline across the board,” said Cody Johnson, spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Tourism. “Traveler sentiment is down, and people are reducing frequency of travel. People don’t have the confidence.”

According to the U.S. Travel Association, travel spending in New Mexico for the week that ended April 25 was $24 million, down 84% from the same week in 2019.

In Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, Armenta said, 60 meetings or events booked by Visit Albuquerque were either canceled or postponed beyond 2020. These events have an estimated direct spend of $36 million.

One of the events to postpone was the National Speech & Debate Association convention, which would have had 8,000 attendees and a $10 million estimated direct spend.

“Because this conference plans years in advance, the earliest they could come back is 2024,” Armenta said. “They want to come back, and that gives us some positive news.”

Armenta said other groups also have offered hope.

“A silver lining is that many of these events or meetings have decided to postpone and make Albuquerque the destination,” Armenta said. “There are so many positive attributes that Albuquerque offers.”

The decline

According to Visit Albuquerque, an average of 6.2 million visitors come to Albuquerque annually, generating $69 million in local taxes.

The lodgers tax for fiscal year 2019 brought in $14.4 million, while 46,000 New Mexicans were employed in leisure and hospitality in Albuquerque. That has come to a screeching halt the past few weeks.

According to the city of Albuquerque, lodgers tax revenue in March 2020 is down 64% percent from March 2019. The tax took in $1.648 million in March and $588,000 in April.

Old Town is vacant after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a stay-at home order and ordered the closure of all nonessential businesses to curb the spread of COVID-19. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

But hotel occupancy rates in the city have remained around 60% for the six weeks that ended April 26, according to the Greater Albuquerque Hotel & Lodging Association. Many hotels have offered rooms to front-line workers and first responders.

In Santa Fe, the impact has been far worse. Hotel occupancy rates declined to just under 10% for April, said Randy Randall, executive director of Tourism Santa Fe.

He said that in April 2019, the occupancy rate was at 70%.

“Tourism stopped,” Randall said. “It literally did. The couple of hotels that remained open downtown saw visitors. They have been for one night as they were passing through.”

Randall says it will take a year to 18 months to recover to the point where Santa Fe was last year.

“It took two years to get to the bottom during the 2008 crisis, then five years to rebuild,” he said. “I think the rebound will be slower than I want it to be. We hate to miss the whole summer period, though the months are equally strong through October.”

At the crossroads of Interstates 25 and 10, Las Cruces has also experienced a substantial drop in visitors.

According to Paul Dahlgren, director of marketing and communications for Visit Las Cruces, five of the major hotels closed and the rest operated at the capacity allowed by public health orders.

“We have approximately 3,300 hotel rooms available for rent at any given time,” Dahlgren said. “The average occupancy for March for the past few years has been at 58% with 2019 at 68%. However, this year the Smith Travel Report reported it down approximately 10% for March. We will see the largest impact during April, May and June.”

In 2019, Las Cruces had more than 750,000 visitors who spent approximately $70 million in tourism-related expenses, according to data from the city of Las Cruces and the New Mexico Tourism Department.

The data also showed that on average, each visitor spent $195 per day on tourism-related expenses, such as lodging, food and beverage, retail, recreation and transportation.

Paul Berlowitz of Santa Fe walks along the Palace of the Governors portal where there would normally be dozens of Native Americans selling art and jewelry. The state museums and the portal have been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Focus on regional

The tourism industry is eager to get the ball rolling again.

One benefit is that New Mexico’s tourism dollars don’t rely on international travel.

“New Mexico has seen its drive traffic remain steady,” Johnson said. “Leisure travel and road trips are going to be the first thing people start to experience, and they are looking at those markets.”

Santa Fe has the luxury of a brand appeal and reach.

For decades, the city has built its reputation as a destination for more than just art and culture.

Though the three main summer markets that draw thousands of visitors – International Folk Art Market, Traditional Spanish Market and Indian Market – have been postponed until 2021, Randall is quick to note that those are just three weekends of the year.

“Santa Fe has built a reputation of being a destination,” Randall said. “Visitors come to Santa Fe to get the full experience. That’s what we need to look at rebuilding once tourism starts coming back.”

Officials at the Santa Fe Opera are expected to announce a decision on this summer’s season by Tuesday.

The opera says it is working with the governor to ensure the safety and health of artists, staff and patrons are the primary factor in all deliberations.

“I want to assure you that the Santa Fe Opera is doing everything in our power to do right by our community,” said Robert K. Meya, SFO general director. “We are committed to making the best decision for everyone whose life is touched by the opera and the business it brings to northern New Mexico.”

In Las Cruces, Dahlgren is looking to promote the natural spaces such as the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument and White Sands National Park.

“Because we’re so close to these monuments, these are amazing assets,” he said. “They are vast, wide-open spaces. There aren’t going to be huge crowds of people right away. People can still practice social distancing.”

All three cities agree that when restrictions are lifted, they will target the drive market because it will take some time for travelers to feel comfortable to travel by plane.

The Albuquerque International Sunport had a 50 percent drop in the number of passengers in March – 211,087, compared with 428,746 in March 2019. And the numbers are expected be even lower for April.

Targeting those wanting take road trips means targeting nearby states – locations that are close enough to New Mexico for one- or two-day drive.

“There’s some pent-up demand as people are able to leave their homes,” Randall said. “The mission is going to ensure that we have a safe environment. We need to look out for our customers’ and our residents’ safety.”

A chain blocks the parking lot of the Santuario de Chimayó. The annual pilgrimage to the sacred northern New Mexico church was canceled due to health restrictions regarding coronavirus. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal

Plans to reopen

Ideas on how to start again are already being thrown about.

Hotel capacities are part of the discussion.

One option would be to limit a hotel to 60%-70% capacity. When visitors check out of a room, it would be left open for24 hours while it is cleaned and disinfected.

As for the art markets, tents could be spaced farther apart, and some artists could be moved into retail space.

“Everything is in the idea stage right now,” Randall said. “The key to it all is making visitors feel welcome and safe. These changes have to be made with a majority.”

Dahlgren said Visit Las Cruces has had an uptick in its online visits in recent weeks.

“Being isolated has pushed everyone online, which gives us an opportunity to sell the area in a different way,” Dahlgren said. “We’ve done virtual tours, and we’ve posted some scenic drive videos to whet the appetite. Everything is going to be slow to return, and we are working with our tourism partners in making the right moves.”

Armenta said Visit Albuquerque continues to reach out to its partners through online programs to help them navigate the uncertainty.

As the organization shifts back into recovery, it has also worked on putting up a virtual vacation planner online for potential visitors.

“We’re also paying attention to what will that early traveler look like,” Armenta said. “The outdoor recreation opportunities and the innate characteristics of Albuquerque help sell it. From a marketing standpoint, we are paying attention to traveler sentiment.”

Randall said the industry’s plans ultimately will depend on when restrictions can be lifted.

“The sooner the governor can be a little bit more definitive, it will help,” he said. “Clearly, she doesn’t know exactly what’s going to happen because the data changes on a daily basis. We’re following what she does closely.”

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