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Beauty, culture make New Mexico enchanting to visitors

New Mexico’s dramatic beauty — from mountain peaks and desert landscapes to watermelon-hued sunsets — combined with its rich cultural history, have made tourism big business in the past 100 years.

In 2009, tourism was the state’s largest private employer, generating $6 billion and bringing in 6.1 million overnight visitors, according to the New Mexico Tourism Department.

From the Santa Fe and El Camino trails to the railroad and the rise in car culture, New Mexico tourism has always been linked to transportation, says Dr. Janet Green, the director of the School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management at New Mexico State University and a former secretary of tourism.

“In the mid-1900s, we had the heyday of historic Route 66,” Green says. “Now we’re paving the way for space travel.”

Until the 1880s, railroad travel was king. The birth of modern tourism came in 1926, when the federal government funded a uniform road network, says Mike Pitel, a tourism historian who worked at the New Mexico Tourism Department from 1977-1999.

“People wanted to drive,” Pitel says. “That gave them more freedom. They could stay for days. They weren’t bound by the train schedule. It was all about the adventure of traveling west.”

While most visitors traveled to Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, they also could access far-flung parts of the state. In Fort Sumner, a 1926 book about Billy the Kid immediately brought tourists to the town in search of his grave, Pitel says. Starting in the 1920s, companies also shuttled visitors to Indian pueblos near tourist centers.

New Mexico became an international attraction with tourists fascinated by the Old West and native culture. Route 66 was particularly popular with European tourists, especially Germans, says Green.

In 1934 the state tourism bureau was created. By the late 1970s, the Albuquerque and Santa Fe Convention and Visitor Bureaus had been formed.

When tourists explain what draws them to New Mexico, scenic beauty is No. 1 on the list, says Sharon Schultz, the CEO of the Tourism Association of New Mexico.

“I think it is the wide-open spaces and the blue sky that people are always shocked by,” she says.

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