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Arizona tourism improves slightly, visitors spent nearly $20 billion last year

Boats cruise on the Colorado River’s Lake Havasu, where part of the local economy is reliant on the tourism and boating industries the river attracts. (Photo by Andrew Fresh via flickr/Creative Commons)

Boats cruise on the Colorado River’s Lake Havasu, where part of the local economy is reliant on the tourism and boating industries the river attracts. (Photo by Andrew Fresh via flickr/Creative Commons)

Tourism in Arizona is now back to where it was before the recession — and SB1070 — hit.

But it’s nowhere near where it should be, according to the state’s top tourism official.

Figures from a study done for the Arizona Office of Tourism show that 39.1 million people visited the state and spent at least one night here in 2013.

The last time Arizona came close to that was in 2007 with 38.7 million visitors.

All those visitors plunked down $19.8 billion last year for everything from $2.7 billion on hotel rooms and $3.7 billion for meals, to $2.5 billion in retail sales of everything from clothing to trinkets to take home to the family like Arizona-themed clothing items proclaiming “Grandma and grandpa visited Arizona and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”

State Tourism Director Sherry Henry said the recovery has been a long time coming. But Henry said there is more to be done.

“We’re not up as much as we would otherwise like to be,” she said. And Henry said there is reason to believe that Arizona can do better.

“Some of the other states are up more,” Henry said. And that, she said, shows people are traveling — but not necessarily to Arizona.

“We’ve lost a little bit of market share over the last eight or nine years,” she said. The goal now, said Henry, is find ways to reclaim that market share.

Some of the problems that Arizona faced are not unique. The recession drove down travel pretty much everywhere else, too.

But Henry said the state’s own budget issues also resulted in less spending to promote Arizona as a destination. So she said her agency is using the $7 million it got from the Legislature, plus about $6.3 million it gets in tribal gaming revenue sharing, to focus tightly on where those dollars will get the best bang for the buck.

The key, said Henry, is to “go after people that we know love Arizona and have the greatest propensity to travel to Arizona and really zero in on that market.”

Some things will remain the same.

For example, aside from a general national marketing effort, the state also chooses several local markets in hopes of convincing people they’d really rather spend their vacation in Arizona versus anywhere else. And, as always, much of that effort is focused on the Chicago area, where residents, eager to escape bitter winters — and anxious to follow their Cubbies to spring training — have traditionally flocked to Arizona.

But last year’s focus on Los Angeles is being scrapped in favor of a new push this year at Minneapolis and Seattle.

Henry’s agency also gets some money from a 2000 ballot measure approved by Maricopa County voters that created a tax on hotel rooms and rental cars. But she said that money, by law, has to be spent for Maricopa County tourism.

She said, though, nothing precludes putting some of those dollars into campaigns to tell people that once they arrive in the Phoenix area, perhaps for spring training, they should consider getting out and seeing much of the rest of what Arizona has to offer.

One thing not addressed in the report is any residual effect of SB1070, the 2010 legislation signed by Gov. Jan Brewer designed to give police more power to detain and arrest those not in the country legally.

That decision provoked a national reaction.

More to the point, it resulted in many national organizations opting either to cancel convention plans for the state or simply not to consider Arizona at all. And with big conferences planned three years out, shaking off the effects takes time.

There was no immediate response to queries to Phoenix convention officials. But it is clear the Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau is keenly sensitive to the effects bad publicity can have on business.

In February, Steve Moore, the organization’s president and CEO, sent a letter to Brewer urging her to veto SB1062. That measure, billed by proponents as promoting religious freedom, was seen by foes as a state-approved license for businesses to discriminate against gays.

That already is legal in Arizona, because discrimination laws do not extend to issues of sexual orientation. But Moore said the measure would hurt the state.

“The perception that any visitor might be denied service in our state would tarnish Phoenix’s appeal as a convention and leisure destination,” he wrote, saying convention groups have diverse memberships and that meeting planners try to maximize attendance.

“Numerous planners have told us SB1062 presents a huge impediment to bringing their business to Arizona,” Moore wrote. Brewer ended up vetoing the measure, saying it was a solution in search of a problem.

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