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.”