Covid Ravaged Arizona’s Tourism Industry. But There Are Signs of Life

Although many attractions across Arizona are closed because of the pandemic, the San Xavier Mission, a 17th century Catholic Church on the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona, is open. (Courthouse News photo / Brad Poole)

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — Carmen and Roberto Doran, a retired couple from Scottsdale, Arizona, haven’t spent as much time on the road this year as they usually do. The pandemic put a halt to most of their travel plans.

But they have found ways to escape the soaring heat of the Phoenix valley. They rented a house in the mountain retreat Flagstaff this summer with their kids, and they recently spent a few days at a lodge near Madera Canyon, a tiny niche of Coronado National Forest south of Tucson.

“We were a little hesitant about traveling during the pandemic,” said Carmen, 70, a retired teacher. “My daughter, especially, was hesitant.”

The key according to Roberto, who retired in 2010 after a career in public health, is to travel by car and bring food and drinks along to stay as self-contained as possible.

“Like a little bubble,” he said Wednesday in a patch of shade outside the San Xavier Mission on the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Roberto and Carmen Doran of Scottsdale, Ariz., are seen here visiting San Xavier Mission south of Tucson. The retired couple scaled back their travel this year, but they have made several trips within the state this year. (Courthouse News photo / Brad Poole)

The Dorans are not alone, said Debbie Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Office of Tourism.

Most travelers now are road-tripping in cars, so a lot coming to Arizona from nearby states — California, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah — or are in-state “staycationers,” Johnson said.

She expects that road traffic to rise as temperatures in southern and central Arizona dip from the record 100+ degree heat of the summer months.

But out-of-state visitors are returning slowly to Arizona, where 47 million travelers spent $26 billion in 2019. In August alone, visitor spending was down by $966 million from 2019, and from January-August they spent $9 billion less than last year — which was Arizona’s fourth consecutive year of record visitation, the tourism office reported.

The office created a Covid-19 website to help tourists plan. It includes a list of hundreds of cancellations, closures and restrictions. Nixed events this year include Major League Baseball’s spring training, which brought $644 million in economic impact in 2018, according to an Arizona State University analysis.

This year, the 15 teams that train in Arizona poured $213 million across the economy despite playing half the planned 239 games, the ASU study showed.

Other cancellations include all events at Phoenix Convention Center and NCAA sports. Dozens of museums are shuttered, including the State Museum in Tucson, Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, Children’s Museum of Phoenix, and Navajo Nation Museum.

Old Tucson, a movie studio and theme park, closed indefinitely over the summer after 89 years of operation, first as a Hollywood western set then as a public destination with live shows, music, and food. The operators of the park stepped aside, leaving Pima County — which owns the land — to decide the fate of the attraction.

Hotel occupancy is down 49% statewide from 2019, with just 47% occupancy in August. A Sheraton planned for downtown Phoenix and a Biltmore planned for Scottsdale have been postponed.

But several new hotels have opened across the state, including a Hilton Canopy and Hyatt in Tempe. In Tucson, a niche boutique hotel called the Tuxon, a locally owned Marriott Bonvoy hotel, opened in July.

Though Sunny Patel and his partner had been planning their opening for a while, after the pandemic hit, they paused and took stock. They identified risk areas and revamped the physical design, eliminating communal tables and some group seating, adding hundreds of signs reminding guests about masks and social distancing, and scaled back the restaurant to fewer items and disposable packaging.

“And everything from getting a beverage or food to your room or at the bar to checking in — all of that can be done on your phone, so if you choose not to interact with our staff or other guests, you can do that seamlessly,” Patel said.

They had planned a heavy rotation of arts, music, outdoor yoga, meditation, and other activities. That aspect of the plan was scaled back before opening to avoid crowds.

“We did try to start with a few events, but at the end of the day, we decided that we care about the safety and care of people first and foremost, so those things will come when it’s the right time,” Patel said.

The Tuxon, which is next to Interstate 10 in Tucson’s center, is tapping into the staycation and business travel market, as well as overnight visitors on their way to and from New Mexico and California, Patel said.

The Tuxon, a locally owned boutique hotel affiliated with Marriott Bonvoy, opened in Tucson in July despite a tourism industry ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. (Courthouse News photo / Brad Poole)

Arizona has long been a destination for business travel. Hotels are often packed with sales conventions, company annual gatherings, conventions and trade shows from around the globe. In summer, when rates are lower, smaller businesses or more frugal ones traditionally take advantage.

“We are just not seeing that type of business return yet, and for some of our hotel properties, that can be up to 70% of their business,” Johnson said.

Although many of the conventions her office attends to promote Arizona globally and within the U.S. have been canceled or gone virtual this year, Johnson’s office has changed gears and is now marketing the state to car travelers in San Diego, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas, and El Paso, she said.

Despite the contraction in Arizona’s tourism industry, there is one major attraction that remains open and tops the list of reasons people visit — the state itself.

About 60% of the state is public land, including Grand Canyon, Saguaro, and Petrified Forest national parks, six national forests, and dozens of smaller state, county, and local outdoor spaces. Arizona has millions of acres of open space to explore, including scores of lakes and more than 200 mountain ranges.

“We are very lucky to have a lot of wide-open spaces, beautiful weather, and outdoor activities that really are what people are craving right now,” Johnson said.

“That helps Arizona.”

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