Passenger growth at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport propelled a tourism boom in the East Valley in 2011, helping to boost hotel occupancy more than 15 percent.
And the airport is likely to deliver another jolt this year, with Allegiant airline's plans to increase the number of flights by more than 50 percent this year.
Just-released numbers show hotel occupancy rose 15.7 percent last year in Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert, said Milton Fort, interim president of the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau. That compares with 4.4 percent valleywide and 5.8 percent in Tempe. Allegiant is a big factor in the East Valley's growth, Fort said.
"We firmly believe there's a direct correlation between that number and the number of people who are coming from the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport," Fort said.
Allegiant will expand its capacity to bring tourists to the Valley in March, which is the busiest month at Gateway. The airline plans 580 monthly flights this year, up from 378 the previous March, airport spokesman Brian Sexton said.
Those flights will carry passengers who never would have come to the Valley without Allegiant, Sexton said. A study found 26 percent of the airline's customers said they would have stayed home if it weren't for Allegiant's low fares or service to cities that aren't served by Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
Valley tourism should get another boost with Gateway's second carrier, Spirit Airlines. The low-cost provider begins service to Las Vegas Feb. 9 and plans to serve 30 cities.
"It's going to be a huge economic impact to the Valley and bring new visitors who normally wouldn't come in," Sexton said.
Allegiant doesn't have specific expansion plans for Mesa this year, airline spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler said. But it's always looking to add flights or new cities.
"We don't see any reason for that growth to stop in the future," she said.
Gateway doesn't have exact passenger projections, but should top 1 million served this year after setting a record with 956,665 passengers in 2011. Because the terminal has already exceeded its annual capacity of 900,000 passengers, and schedules need to be managed more carefully, the airport expects to add six to eight gates to avoid overcrowding.
"It's going to be tested for sure," Sexton said.
Allegiant started working with several Valley cities last year to further promote tourism in the cities it serves. Computer users in the Midwest will see ads pop up when the weather is especially miserable to contrast Arizona's climate, Fort said.
"If there's a 30-degree temperature difference between us and their location, they're going to see a banner urging them to check out the warmth in Mesa," Fort said.
The Mesa CVB hasn't projected how much tourism will grow this year, but it expects something much more modest than last year's jump.
Allegiant is working to increase travel to the Valley with increased marketing in cities where travel to Mesa was weaker than expected, said Michael Martin, executive vice president with the Tempe Convention and Visitors Bureau. The airline has more potential to boost tourism than its competitors because it's a travel company that tries to book complete vacation packages. That means booking visitors in various hotels, mostly in the East Valley.
Martin said the Mesa passenger service has the potential to add jobs by making the area more attractive to businesses that may want to expand or move here.
"That provided an extra boost to economic development, not just tourism, but the commerce side for the East Valley," Martin said.