Greater Tucson’s travel and tourism sectors are “a bit sluggish” midway through 2008, according to Jonathan Walker, president and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“It’s not bad,” said Walker, a 14-year veteran with the bureau. “But compared to the last few years, we can see a slight slowdown in leisure travel.
“This is not nearly the kind of slowdown we had after 9/11,” he said. “It’s similar to other economic slowdowns in the early ‘90s, and the late ‘80s.”
Walker looks at hotel occupancy rates in drawing his conclusions. Compared with figures from 2007, Pima County’s reported lodging industry occupancy rates were down from 1.7 percent (February) to 12.7 percent (January) during the first four months of 2008.
Nationally, and in Maricopa County, occupancy rates were down as well. The exception was Scottsdale, which had a gain during February, when the Super Bowl was played.
“It’s really a national trend,” said Kimberly Schmitz, director of communications and public relations for the MTCVB. “We’re all in it together.”
Walker points directly to “the slowdown in the economy on a nationwide basis” as a cause of Tucson’s dip in business. “Vacation and leisure travel is a discretionary spending pattern,” Walker said. “With prices up, the economy soft, and people struggling to pay for the necessities of life,” discretionary spending often declines.
Higher fuel prices are but a part of the equation. “It’s a whole bunch of factors,” Walker said. “It’s airline prices. And the higher cost of everything is putting people in a position to take shorter vacations, or holding off for a while.”
In such a climate, the MTCVB markets “more regionally, a little closer to home,” Walker said. It targets Mexico, California and Phoenix, calling attention to the Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase, the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship golf tournament, El Tour de Tucson, La Fiesta de los Vaqueros Rodeo, Major League Baseball spring training, the Tucson International Mariachi Conference and the Sonoran Desert.
The Midwest remains a major Tucson market for convention business, which has been less affected. And there is “a lot of interest from Europe, with the stronger European economies and monetary units. It makes coming to the U.S. an affordable destination.”
For locals in a Tucson summer, “there are bargains to be had, that’s for sure.”
The industry continues to invest in itself. The Ritz-Carlton development at Dove Mountain in north Marana is significant. The Omni Tucson National Golf Resort is undergoing major renovation and additions. “The hotel community is constantly having to refurbish and upgrade itself to present a great product,” Walker said.
Over the long term, the MTCVB is “cautiously optimistic,” Walker said. “We’ll probably be down a little bit until this economy turns around. We’re surviving it pretty well.”