Tucson tourism struggles to gain ground

Key indicators, such as bed-tax revenue, visitor counts show sluggish sector here
2013-06-30T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T11:22:02Z Tucson tourism struggles to gain groundBecky Pallack Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 30, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Tourism in Tucson hasn't recovered from the recession - and it may be experiencing a second slump.

Several indicators point to a weakening industry in Southern Arizona, where 1 in 8 jobs is tied to tourism.

• Bed-tax collections, a reflection of hotel and resort stays, dipped slightly in the first quarter compared with a year ago, and they're off 23 percent from five years ago.

• Room rates are stagnant, and meeting and convention bookings are down compared with last year.

• Head counts at local tourist attractions were mostly flat in the first quarter compared with a year ago, and some declined.

Hotel bookings for the second quarter are shaping up to be softer than the previous year, too, said Mark Van Buren, co-chairman of the Southern Arizona Lodging and Resort Association and general manager of the Tucson Marriott University Park.

"People thinking about traveling or conventions are playing closer to the vest than we would like," he said. "The public isn't acting the way they were four years ago before the recession."

One thing Tucson could do to help is to lobby for more flights into Tucson International Airport, he said.

About 9 percent fewer air passengers arrived in Tucson in February this year compared with last year, Tucson Airport Authority statistics show. Alaska Airlines announced last week that it would begin non-stop flights to Portland, Ore., in November.

The tourism economy in Tucson, Phoenix and Scottsdale has been slower to recover than in places like New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas, where hotels have returned to pre-recession occupancy and profitability, said Brent DeRaad, CEO of Visit Tucson.

The onset of the recession was slow in the Arizona tourism industry because of strong numbers of pre-bookings for meetings, he said. And the recovery is delayed, too, because meetings bookings haven't rebounded, he said.

Fewer groups are holding destination meetings, so competition is intense. Those meetings that do happen are shorter and smaller, so they bring in less money than they used to, DeRaad said.

Tucson used to attract a fair number of government-sector meetings, but sequestration has meant agencies are limiting travel, he said.

The budget at Visit Tucson, the local visitors' bureau, is the lowest it's been since the late '90s, he said, but the group is rolling out a new marketing campaign to try to boost sales.

Both DeRaad and Van Buren said they are hopeful Tucson could have a strong finish to the year.

Attendance is flat at the Pima Air & Space Museum, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Old Tucson theme park when comparing this tourism season to the previous year, said Tom Moulton, director of Pima County Economic Development and Tourism.

But all were beginning to trend upward in March, he noted, probably due to special events.

State and national parks in Southern Arizona saw the same trend, numbers from the University of Arizona's Economic and Business Research Center. Attendance was off for the winter season and then shot up in March.

Reid Park Zoo's head count was down 8.5 percent in the first quarter of this year, back to normal after a super 2012, Moulton said.

Tohono Chul Park attendance was down 19 percent for the winter tourism season compared with the previous year, he said.

Whenever the local tourism industry sees a positive blip on the radar, "we get reminded the recession is still here," Moulton said. "We haven't recovered here yet."

As one possible stimulus, Pima County leaders want to include up to $37 million worth of new museum exhibits in the next bond election.

BED-TAX TREND

Pima County bed-tax collections, first quarter

2008 $2,308,533

2009 $1,842,567

2010 $1,670,221

2011 $1,665,701

2012 $1,782,746

2013 $1,774,949

Source: Pima County

impact on job growth

Job growth in the Tucson tourism sector, 2012 (compared with 2011)

• Total employment: up 1.5 percent, or 5,300 jobs

• Leisure and hospitality: up 3.3 percent, or 1,300 jobs

• Arts, entertainment, recreation: up 8.8 percent, or 400 jobs

• Accommodation: up 0.6 percent, or 100 jobs

• Food and drink: up 3.1 percent, or 900 jobs

Source: University of Arizona Economic and Business Research Center

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at bpallack@azstarnet.com or 573-4251. On Twitter @BeckyPallack.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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