State exploring ways to increase tourism
File photo

Arizona is once again becoming a popular place for tourists.

New figures released Thursday show that spending by visitors to the state last year is approaching pre-recession levels. Tourists -- business and recreational -- dropped $18.3 billion in Arizona last year.

That figure, which translates out to about $50 million a day, is just 3 percent below what they were spending in 2007.

The biggest share of all that spending was for food, at $4 billion. Visitors also spent $3.1 billion on gasoline and local transportation and spent another $2.8 million buying various items at retail outlets.

Not surprisingly, most of the coin was dropped in Maricopa County. But even Graham and Greenlee counties, combined for purposes of the study by Dean Runyan Associates for the Arizona Office of Tourism, managed to grab hold of $47 million of tourist dollars.

Not all of the numbers are equally optimistic.

While tourism spending is recovering, the picture is a little more bleak for the number of those actually employed in serving all those visitors.

The report found 157,700 Arizonans directly employed in the industry. While that is up slightly from 2010, it remains 9 percent below 2007 employment.

And it even is 4 percent less than the tourism workforce in 2000.

Some of this, the study suggests, is that those in the industry may not be confident that the improvement will stick. And they don't want to end up with a bunch of people on the payroll who they may not need.

"Employers tend to lengthen the hours of existing employees and improve their balance sheets prior to hiring new workers following steep recessions,'' the report says.

One out of every seven overnight visitors was from outside this country, with the nearest neighbors generating the most travel.

Canadian travel hit 21 million. That's a 5.4 percent increase over 2010.

But the 13.4 million visitors from Mexico is a slight decline from the year before.

The United Kingdom, Japan and Germany were next in line for Arizona visitors -- followed by 1.5 million Brazilians. While that number is not much by itself, it is a 25 percent increase from the prior year, and far more than double tourists from Brazil in 2007.

Arizona also is apparently an increasingly popular destination for residents of China, where tourism has doubled since 2007.

Kiva Couchon, spokeswoman for the tourism office, said that has less to do with Arizona than what is happening in the home countries.

"They have had tremendous growth in their middle class and their economies are stronger and more stable than they have been in previous years,'' she said. "So you're seeing more travel activity and consumers being more comfortable in spending money on travel.''

Couchon also said Brazil is now part of the U.S. government's visa waiver program, making it easier for residents there to come here. And the Chinese government, she said, has been easing travel restrictions for its citizens.

Still, Arizona has a long way to go to becoming the must-see place for international tourists.

New York topped the list, bagging more than a third of foreign visitors, followed by California at 22 percent and Florida at 20 percent. Arizona's share of that market was just 3.1 percent.

The increase in tourism has allowed Arizona's hotel and motel owners to try to make some money by raising their rates.

According to the study, the average daily rate in 2011 was $95.23. That is up 2.8 percent from the prior year -- but still close to 10 percent below what it was in 2007.

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