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NM tourism officials make case for $25M funding boost

 (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico hasn’t started rolling out the welcome mat for visitors yet, but top state tourism officials said Thursday that a funding infusion would ensure the state could benefit from pent-up demand for travel once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

Senate Finance Committee members did not vote Thursday on the state Tourism Department’s request for a $25 million special appropriation – on top of the agency’s core budget – but some of them pointed out current business and travel restrictions make fulfilling the request a gamble of sorts.

“If we have to cancel (visitors’ plans), they may never come back,” Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, the committee’s chairman.

However, Tourism Secretary Jen Schroer called the $25 million figure a “minimum investment,” saying New Mexico’s brand awareness has slipped over the past year as its tourism advertising campaign was largely shelved during the pandemic.

The requested $25 million would be used primarily to expand a New Mexico tourism marketing initiative in “high value” markets over the coming year, though the exact funding breakdown would depend on the state’s COVID-19 vaccine timeline and other factors.

A recent Tourism Department analysis showed the COVID-19 pandemic has cost the state an average of $337 million per month in visitor spending, and $163 million in state and local tax revenue.

In addition to business restrictions imposed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, the governor has also enacted a 14-day travel quarantine order that applies to most people entering New Mexico.

That order currently applies to those entering New Mexico from all other states, except Hawaii, and is among the most stringent of its kind in the nation.

While it’s unclear when the order might be lifted, Schroer said New Mexico could benefit from an uptick in travel even if air flight levels remain low, saying 80% of out-of-state tourists drive into the state.

“We know the end is in sight – it’s just a question of when,” she said during Thursday’s hearing.

If approved, the $25 million special appropriation and the rest of the Tourism Department’s annual budget would be included in a new state spending plan for the fiscal year that starts in July.

Lawmakers are not expected to sign off on a final version of the budget plan until the late stages of this year’s 60-day session that ends in March, which could give them more time to gauge the state’s pandemic outlook.

But Schroer cautioned that waiting too long before reviving the state’s tourism marketing campaign could mean missing out on would-be visitors.

“People are dreaming right now of their post-pandemic vacation – I know I am,” she said.

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