Delivery alert

There may be an issue with the delivery of your newspaper. This alert will expire at NaN. Click here for more info.

Recover password

Tourists returning at an almost normal rate

Rusty and Violet Martin, from Canyon Lake, Texas, have lunch in the patio area of the Plaza Cafe in downtown Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The streets of Santa Fe have become busier as of late, and could become even more crowded still.

The city’s tourism industry – the lifeblood in many ways for the local economy – has continued to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic as restrictions loosen and more people begin to receive vaccines, according to newly released figures from city officials.

Tourism Director Randy Randall told reporters last week that the city received 49,000 out-of-area visitors each week for two weeks in May. That’s compared to the 51,000 average weekly visitors Santa Fe received throughout the course of 2019.

It was only a few months ago, before vaccines were widespread, that Santa Fe County faced severe restrictions that subsequently deterred many from visiting the area. Numbers had been improving slowly, but the number seemed to explode in May, Randall said.

“I think we’re going from 0 to 100 miles an hour, with nothing in between,” Mayor Alan Webber said of the sudden increase.

Around 65% of those visiting are from out of state, with Colorado, Texas and Arizona among the top states from which visitors travel. Randall said they’re hoping to capitalize on in-state visitors taking day trips to the city.

And that increased interest has become very evident as hotel parking lots fill up and hundreds have descended onto Santa Fe Plaza, filling businesses that have seen only a trickle of customers over the past year.

Kelly Moynahan and her daughter Meghan, 11, from Park City, Utah, visit Meow Wolf’s The House of Eternal Return. The opening of the art experience, as well as the city’s museums, have helped bring tourists back to Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

La Fonda General Manager Rik Blythe said the reopening of such large-scale attractions as Meow Wolf and museums was what convinced many visitors finally to come to Santa Fe.

“The floodgates just opened – it was amazing,” Blythe said.

State Tourism Secretary Jen Paul Schroer said the willingness to travel stems from an increased feeling of safety among tourists. Data from her office shows people’s fear of the virus dropped 10 percentage points in just a week.

That success has also been seen in Taos and the rest of the Enchanted Circle, as well.

“That whole region is almost all the way back up to where they were in 2019,” Schroer said.

Those visitors have city officials confident that gross receipts tax (GRT) revenues will continue to improve. At this point in 2020, GRT revenues – the backbone of the city’s budget – had collapsed, forcing the city to make sudden and severe cuts, which included temporary furloughs for employees.

The most recent budget appears much more optimistic. With an expected influx of cash, most city employees will get a 4% raise, and Webber spoke of new investments in affordable housing.

But the influx of visitors has raised concerns about potential outbreaks of different variants of COVID-19, especially with New Mexico far ahead of other states in terms of vaccinating local residents.

And, with mask restrictions in New Mexico becoming looser, it has become less common to see people wearing masks in public. Many businesses, though, still require masks on entry.

“Around the plaza this weekend, I don’t think you would’ve made much money being a mask salesperson,” Randall said.

The state currently still has some restrictions on business capacities in place. Webber said any spike in COVID-19 could be followed by tighter restrictions if need be.

“We are still taking precautions because our number-one priority is public health,” he said.

Schroer said those who aren’t vaccinated should wear a mask, although she admitted that’s not something officials can “actively enforce.”