Forget the recession. And never mind SB 1070.
Arizona is once again emerging as a tourist mecca.
New figures from the Arizona Office of Tourism show more than 38 million people from elsewhere decided to spend at least one night in Arizona. More to the point, those visitors, whether here for business or pleasure, spent $19.3 billion here.
That works out to about $53 million a day.
More to the point, it’s the best tourism year in more than a decade, at least in constant dollars.
But even accounting for inflation, the report prepared by Dean Runyan Associates said tourism spending in Arizona last year is still 2.5 percent above 2011.
The biggest chunk of that was from tourists feeding themselves, plunking down $3.6 billion in restaurants and another $900 million in grocery stores. Visitors also spent $3.7 billion just getting around, mostly gasoline and rental cars, $2.6 billion in hotels and other accommodations and $2.5 billion in other retail sales, whether a pretty new hat to protect from the midday sun to some little souvenir like a tongue-in-cheek “Arizona snowman” — essentially a hat, carrot nose and lumps of coal floating in a globe of water.
Still, there are some signs that the industry is not quite on track to full recovery.
Total direct employment in Arizona attributed to tourism was pegged at 161,300. While that is a definite increase over 2011, it still is about 7,200 jobs less than the record set in 2006, before the economy tanked.
State Tourism Director Sherry Henry said much of the reason for that is that those in travel-related industries are still waiting to feel a bit more comfortable that the worst has passed.
“During the really tough times, what they tried to do is what everybody did: doing more with less,” she said.
“Now, everybody’s beginning to gain a comfort zone,” Henry continued. She said that should encourage employers to start hiring again to meet the demands that they already are starting to see.
But Henry said it’s no surprise that the recovery has taken so long for Arizona to recover from the “perfect storm” that sent travel numbers plummeting.
One, obviously, was the recession.
But Henry also mentioned the “AIG effect,” named after the insurance industry giant which, shortly after getting billions in money from the federal government to bail it out of its financial problems, spent $400,000 to entertain 100 insurance agents at a resort in California. The resulting bad publicity led other major corporations to scale back spending on conferences and meetings.
And then there was SB 1070, the controversial 2010 legislation designed to give state and local police more power to detain and arrest people not in this country legally.
While the record is mixed on how that affected casual travelers, there is no question but that it resulted in some organizations cancelling convention plans for Arizona and making other groups and businesses reticent to even consider the state. One tourism official told Capitol Media Services at the time that hotel and convention center booking agents were having problems even getting some groups to return their calls.
And with big conferences planned three years out, shaking off the effects is taking time.
Henry acknowledged that booking at the Phoenix Convention Center, the largest in the state, are still lagging. But she believes the end is in sight.
“Eventually these numbers are all going to level out,’ she said.
Time helps. And Henry said surveys show that awareness of SB 1070, much of which was voided by federal courts, has seemed to fade.
“Arizona does not have an image problem,” she said. “Arizona has an awareness problem.”
Specifically, Henry said the lack of funding in prior years for tourism promotion on a national and international level has left the state below the radar when people consider where to visit.
Overall, 38.1 million people spent at least one night visiting in Arizona in 2012, a 1.4 percent increase from the prior year.
The new report shows the largest percentage of those overnight visitors to Arizona are coming from our neighbor to the South. Mexicans make up two-thirds of those coming here, whether for pleasure, shopping or business.
Canadians are far behind at 15 percent. But from a pure financial standpoint, they are far better for the Arizona economy.
According to the report, more than half the money spent on tourism comes from Canadians. But much of that may be simply a function of time: Many of them stay for weeks or months at a time.
By contrast, spending by Mexicans totals less than 20 percent of tourism dollars, with the balance from everywhere else.
On the domestic front, while Arizonans are known for flocking to the West Coast, there is evidence this is not entirely a one-sided relationship. California produced the largest number of Arizona overnight visitors, followed — far behind — with travelers from Texas, Nevada, New Mexico and Illinois.