Arizona’s tourism industry is celebrating — though it might be short-lived — as the state deals with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s because the Arizona Office of Tourism is reporting a record-breaking 2019 in terms of visitor spending and travel industry jobs.
On Wednesday, the AOT released its annual report, showing Arizona visitors spent a record $25.6 billion — which equates to $70.1 million per day spent across the state’s 90-plus cities, towns and communities.
“I think we’ve seen a great tourism increase across the United States,” Debbie Johnson, director of the AOT, told the Daily Independent. “Our economy was doing well, people were traveling, people were enjoying travel. Obviously, all of this was in 2019. I think a lot of things contributed to it, but I think strong economy and certainly consistency in job growth was really important to travel prior to where we are now. It’s so hard to talk about everything since 2019 when you consider where we’re at.”
According to the report, spending by Arizona visitors directly generated a record 194,300 tourism industry jobs last year. When combined with indirect and induced employment, the travel industry-supported 361,300 Arizona jobs.
The 2019 data was officially released during the AOT’s Governor’s Conference on Tourism, which was held virtually for the first time Wednesday, July 22. The annual meeting connects leaders from across the state’s travel and hospitality industry.
All research was performed by Dean Runyan Associates, Longwoods International and Tourism Economics. The full calendar year 2019 report is available at www.tourism.az.gov.
The record spending in 2019 also generated a record $3.78 billion in combined local, state and federal tax revenue, which reduced the annual tax burden by $1,400 for every Arizona household, according to the AOT. In addition, $1 billion of that revenue goes straight into the state’s General Fund.
“We certainly want to celebrate the efforts, but we are focused on driving the recovery that our industry really needs,” Ms. Johnson said. “And it is certainly going to change our numbers for 2020, what’s happening in the pandemic. Yes, we want to celebrate... that celebration’s going to be very short lived because we’re going to focus on how to recover our industry and bring us in to that stabilization mode. These numbers from 2019 are going to be helpful for all of us to really provide us — I guess I’ll call it a baseline — of where we can get back to. It’s not going to happen this year, and it’s probably not going to happen next year. But it gives us a really strong baseline to work towards.”
And that’s where the AOT’S Tourism Strategic Recovery Plan comes into play. The plan is part of the AOT’s ongoing commitment to support Arizona’s tourism industry during the COVID-19 crisis and through recovery. It will offer specific guidance, tactics and adaptability to serve the needs of Arizona communities.
“That’s been a really interesting opportunity to learn so much about what people in our industry needs in various communities and various sectors of the industry,” Ms. Johnson said. “It’s going to be a working document that provides us tactics and programs of work to really help make a difference in that recovery and rebuilding. In my opinion, it’s boots on the ground, how can we make a difference to the people who support their families through tourism.”
Calling into the virtual conference from Portland, Oregon, Trever Cartwright, founder and partner of the Coraggio Group, is part of a team leading the efforts with the recovery plan. He noted that despite working with tourism offices in states across the country, they’ve never had to have a section in a plan for “in the event of a pandemic.”
“And yet here we are,” he said. “And it’s why we have to press the pause button on a typical strategic plan and really starting to focus on stabilization and recovery for the industry. In many ways, we think about this plan as a bit of a triage. These are unprecedented times. You hear that term every day and it probably gets a little old to hear, but it’s really true. As we think of stabilization and recovery, it’s going to require a different type of action on behalf of the industry, on behalf of the Office of Tourism. It’s going to require a different kind of partnership with one another. It’s going to require a different kind of ownership on behalf of all of you, across the industry, on what recovery means.”
The plan is 45 pages and can be found at the AOT website. A formal plan review with an advisory group is scheduled for January 2021. A report on its progress will be provided at next year’s GCOT conference, along with the presentation of tourism awards for both 2019 and 2020.
Also at the conference, Colleen Floyd, research director at the AOT, showed 10 years of gradual increase in visitation to Arizona through 2019, though pointed out domestic visitation is down 11% in 2020.
“What this tells me is more and more people are valuing travel,” Ms. Floyd said Wednesday. “People want to travel, and I don’t think that’s going to go away.”
She also shared a survey from Longwoods International, which showed 34% of people don’t plan to travel in the next six weeks, as of July 6. That’s down from 40% on May 27.
The main purpose people flock to Arizona is to visit family — and that’s from around the U.S. and within Arizona. Touring is second.
“We really are going to have to rely on Arizona residents traveling within their state,” Ms. Floyd said. “The last few years resident travel’s been growing at a pretty good clip but in 2019 it only grew about a percent and a half. So it’s sort of like for a minute there they forgot how great it was to explore their own backyard. And I’m thinking this year is going to be an excellent reminder of why Arizona is such a great place to explore.”
Ms. Floyd also pointed out that by the end of June 2019, tourism had contributed roughly $600 million to the state’s General Fund. However, that’s down to about $300 million after the end of June 2020.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms. Johnson sees Arizona’s tourism industry holding fairly well compared to other states — especially those that have stricter guidelines on travel, leading to people choosing to spend time in states that aren’t as restrictive.
But it’s also Arizonans themselves that are keeping the state afloat, according to Ms. Johnson.
“We have a really strong in-state tourism program already. Arizonans are our largest in-state market,” she said. “Out of all of the different states that we get tourism from, Arizona is No. 1. We had over 11 million visitors last year travel within Arizona. And that says a lot for us to help get us through this recovery as we’re encouraging people to get out and explore places they haven’t been. We’re also very blessed in that we are an outdoors, wide-open spaces destination so people can do social distancing, they can get outside, and they can explore while still being safe. And that’s really important as we go forward as well.”
However, as the state continues to allow visitors from out of state to come to Arizona, Mr. Cartwright said officials need to keep in mind resident sentiment when going about plans for tourism recovery.
According to the AOT report, around 70% of Arizona residents have at least some concern about contracting the virus.
Earlier in July, Ms. Johnson stressed the importance of Arizonans and visitors to listen to guidance from the Arizona Department of Health Services and other health agencies to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. That includes wearing masks and face-coverings, physically distancing while out in public, frequent hand washing and staying home when sick.
So as the world continues to fight and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Arizona Office of Tourism seeks to provide a robust travel experience for visitors, while at the same time keeping them safe.
“My first hope is that we get people back to work,” Ms. Johnson said. “I have talked to many people in our industry who just want to work. They love what they do. They want to get back to working. So that’s my priority, is to get people back to work. And then start to talk about what our next steps are for Arizona tourism. Where do our residents feel safe? Where do our visitors feel safe? We want to make sure the experience people have, both as residents and employees in the industry — and visitors — is a safe experience for all of us.”