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Long journey ahead for NM tourism

 A lone passenger walks through the largely deserted halls of the Albuquerque International Sunport April 28. Visitor spending in New Mexico was down as much as 84% by late April compared to the previous year. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico’s state tourism department is charting a path to help the state’s tourism industry recover as the economy starts to reopen, according to department leadership.

New Mexico Tourism Secretary Jen Paul Schroer laid out the state of the beleaguered industry and announced a series of programs aimed at getting businesses back on their feet during a Tuesday webinar. These range from a new advertising campaign to an effort to help businesses acquire protective equipment more effectively.

“We know that our industry was the first to shut down, and it’s going to take longer to ramp up,” Schroer said.

The occupancy rate at New Mexico hotels dropped to 22% in early April, down from 63% just a few weeks early, according to data from the tourism research firm Smith Travel Reports. Likewise, visitor spending was down as much as 84% by late April compared to the previous year.

“We are past the low point in demand … but we still have a long way to go before we are at pre-COVID levels,” Schroer said.

While New Mexico is beginning to relax restrictions on nonessential business as the state meets certain criteria related to containing the spread of the virus, Schroer cautioned that large gatherings still may be a ways off.

“I think the reality (is) that we may not have the ability to do mass gatherings of over 100 people until there is a vaccine or herd immunity,” she said.

Schroer said this means it may be 12 to 18 months before a return to normalcy for the tourism industry, which is reliant on large events like fairs and festivals.

Still, Schroer identified several reasons for the industry to be optimistic about the future. She cited a study showing that many Americans are already planning their next trip. The same study showed that travelers are more likely to remain in the United States, avoid crowds and drive to their destination, three factors that stand to benefit New Mexico.

Schroer told listeners a key for hotels and other businesses looking to win back customers will be assuring them that the business is taking every precaution to prevent virus spread.

“Consumers want to see an added layer of sanitation and protection,” she said.

To that end, Schroer’s department is developing a certification program with the New Mexico Society of Association Executives to educate companies on virus-related best practices.

Companies that complete the program will receive decals they can display to visitors, among other benefits. Those companies also will have the option to participate in a collective that lets them buy personal protective equipment like masks in bulk, an effort Schroer said should reduce costs for companies.

Additionally, the tourism department is working with the New Mexico Hospitality Association to launch an industry-led advertising campaign titled “New Mexico Safe Promise” by the end of the month.

“We know that we are in the business of building consumer confidence again,” Schroer said.

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