In the summer months of pre-pandemic years, tourists would flock to Albuquerque to enjoy near total sunshine or indulge in the city’s cultural offerings.
Out-of-towners could be spotted throughout the city, strolling through the historic Old Town neighborhood and hiking in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains.
This summer, those scenes are finally making a comeback.
After two years of pandemic-induced disruptions, Albuquerque’s tourism season is finally in full swing again and largely back to pre-pandemic levels, local leaders said.
“No doubt the travel industry was hit very hard by the pandemic, and there was certainly different observations and predictions made about what that recovery would look like,” said Tania Armenta, Visit Albuquerque president and CEO. “And what ended up happening is that the fact that people stayed home and there was alterations in their behavior for such a long period of time, it’s resulted in pretty significant pent-up travel demand and Albuquerque has benefited tremendously from that.”
Tourism is a major part of Albuquerque’s economy, bringing in more than $2 billion to the city in 2019 and $14.5 million in lodgers tax collections, according to data from Visit Albuquerque.
This year could bring in even more money.
Albuquerque is on track to bring in record-setting revenue from the lodgers tax for the 2022 fiscal year, said Ceela McElveny, vice president of marketing for Visit Albuquerque. Lodgers tax data provides a peek into tourism numbers since it reflects taxes gained from such short-term hotel accommodations as those typically used by tourists.
So far, Albuquerque is on track to collect $15.6 million for the current fiscal year, up more than $1 million from 2019 — the previous record-setting year.
“(It’s) an incredible comeback following two years of pandemic and it shows the strength of that pent-up demand for travel,” McElveny said.
Though some of the increase, Armenta said, could be coming from the fact that many hotels have raised their overall rates this year.
Alongside an increase in lodgers tax collections, hotel occupancy is also up from the previous two years and almost back to pre-pandemic levels.
In April, Albuquerque had a hotel occupancy rate of 67.4% compared to the national average of 65.5%.
These numbers are also up from 61.2% in April 2021, and 25.9% in April 2020 during the height of coronavirus restrictions. In 2019, the average hotel occupancy rate sat at 69.9%.
Old Town retailers
At the Breaking Bad Store in Old Town, tourists are the core of the business, according to co-owners Edward Candelaria and Marq Smith — with nearly 90% of their customers coming from out of Albuquerque.
The duo chose to open their store in Albuquerque’s Old Town because they knew that it would be heavily dependent on tourists, but the timing of the opening — January 2020 — meant that the first year was more of a struggle than anticipated.
According to Candelaria, Old Town was a “ghost town” during this time period.
“When we came back from the (first) shutdown, there was nothing, there was no tourism,” Candelaria said.
However, since the height of the pandemic, the store, and Old Town, are now experiencing an increase in tourism, Candelaria and Smith said.
Since the store opened at the beginning of the pandemic, both Candelaria and Smith said they can’t compare current traffic to the old normal, but the store is on track to double 2021’s sales.
Smith said the store is regularly packed with tourists, so much so that they are debating bringing on an additional staff member to help manage the increase.
Indeed, on a Friday in June, tourists could be seen coming into the shop and checking out the store’s many “Breaking Bad”-themed items.
“This year has just exploded to out-of-control heights,” he said. “And I say this because, last year, the world was still shut down. This year, we’re seeing a lot more people from other countries. I mean, I just met a young man from Slovakia who wanted to come to the store.”
Also encouraging is the return of charter buses bringing in groups of tourists from out of town or from out of state, something that neither of them have seen since opening the store.
Besides the increase in foot traffic, Candelaria said the airing of the last season of “Better Call Saul” is also bringing in people and the store is currently selling more merchandise from the spinoff series than from “Breaking Bad.”
Down the street from the Breaking Bad Store, Painted Lady Bed and Brew, a bed and breakfast specializing in local beers, is also experiencing a return to normal.
Owner Jesse Herron said the lodging company is almost back to 100% of the traffic it saw in pre-pandemic days.
“It kind of feels like things are back to normal somewhat as far as travelers go,” he said.
While international visitors slowed down, and almost disappeared, during the height of the pandemic, Herron said they, too, are starting to return and he just recently had his first international booking in more than two years.
“I think people are eager to get back out and to get back to what was normal,” he said.
Some still recovering
While lodging statistics show a return to normal for tourism numbers, some tourism-based entertainment businesses are still struggling to bring in similar revenue compared to pre-pandemic levels.
At the hot air balloon ride company World Balloon, owner Murray Conrad said passengers are down by about a third compared to 2021.
He said last year was actually a record-setting year for the company thanks to “revenge tourism” and a desire among tourists to check off bucket-list items such as hot air balloon rides after a year being shut inside the house.
Despite the increase in visitors to the city, Conrad said some travelers who would have otherwise chosen to go on a hot air balloon ride during a trip have decided to forgo a flight due to price increases in such things as gasoline.
Increases in gasoline don’t just deter tourists from booking. Conrad said it has also affected his business’s bottom line through increased expenses. This year alone, he said, they have paid $5,000 more in propane, and this doesn’t include the increase in diesel gas prices.
Daniel Liberti, Four Corner Balloon Rides owner, said his bookings are up this year compared to last, but overall flights are down due to an unusually gusty spring season and last-minute cancellations due to travel issues or increasing costs across the economy.
As a “luxury item,” Liberti said that rides are often the first thing canceled, so travelers can spend their money elsewhere.
He said that, when gas prices increased initially, he experienced a few cancellations and a few customers told him that they had to rethink their expenses in light of fuel increases, but those types of cancellations have now tapered off.
Now, Liberti said, a big driver of cancellations is customers being unable to make their reservation due to their flights being either canceled or rerouted.
As tourists make their way back, Armenta said her organization is working to continue highlighting the unique characteristics Albuquerque offers.
Armenta said Visit Albuquerque, which works alongside city government to promote tourism, has launched several campaigns aimed at bringing tourists from destinations around the country, including new campaigns in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Austin, Texas, spurred by new direct air travel to both locations.
She said campaigns to bring people in for such events as the Gathering of the Nations and cycling competitions have been successful, but there is now a focus on bringing back events, such as work conferences — a travel segment that is still performing below pre-pandemic levels.