Tourism fights back against COVID

Story and photo by Amy Byres with the Rio Rancho Observer

The pandemic has hit tourism hard, but Sandoval County has knockout outdoor attractions, according to the new county tourism coordinator.
Kent Berry started the job in January and moved to the state from Tulsa, Okla., over a year ago. He has lived in New Mexico before, working in the film industry.
“Aesthetically, I love it here. It is such a beautiful place,” he said.

Berry has always wanted to be a tourism director.

“Some people think of Sandoval County as the county between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and it is so much more than that,” he said. “I am really glad I am able to start learning that and, hopefully, expressing that in some of the things we put out there through the Sandoval County Tourism Alliance.”

The county Tourism Alliance works with New Mexico True and New Mexico Tourism Department. This partnership elongates the county’s $35,000 in marketing funds, Berry said.
“And what that does is it helps us use our marketing dollars almost in a match-type basis. And so when you look at marketing and advertising, it can get really expensive really quickly just to even put an ad in, say, the ‘New Mexico Magazine,’ that is very cost conducive,” he said. “… So with our coordination with those organizations, we are able to compile our money and promote our communities in a better way.”
Every penny matters, he said.
From March-December, New Mexico saw a 45.25 percent drop in visitor spending, totaling a loss of about $3.3 billion, according to the state tourism department. The leisure and hospitality industry saw a 30 percent loss in jobs in December; total unemployment in Sandoval County, including all industries, was just under 6 percent.
“A look back on 2020 compared to 2019 is a very telling story of what was expected to be another record-breaking revenue year for tourism in Sandoval County,” said Director of County Business and Economic Development Dora Dominguez.
After 2019’s record-breaking $255 million in visitor spending in the county and $24 million in local and state taxes generated, 2020 was estimated to be even better, she said.
“Given the strength of outdoor recreation amenities, the increase of youth soccer tournaments, surrounding pueblo and tribal enterprises, local festivals, Sandoval County and tourism dollars in 2020 were positioned to out-pace 2019,” she said. “Outdoor recreation biking, hiking, camping, hot springs, pueblo and tribal events, all contribute to strong January, February tourism traffic throughout Sandoval County.”
What was a strong start in 2020 came to a halt with the pandemic.
Some businesses survived because of relief-funding from the CARES Act, Dominguez said. She worked with almost 100 small businesses to feed funding the county received from the act to business owners, she said.
Based on 2019 data, Dominguez predicts county tourism dropped 50 percent in visitor spending with a minimum loss of $106 million. In 2019, the county had 2,483 tourism-related jobs, Dominguez estimated a 50 percent reduction of those jobs, leaving 1,242 tourism-related jobs in 2020.
“The job-loss number anecdotally we know is far greater, given that just with what we know because of our work on the distribution of CARES Act grant funds was largely felt by the tourism-related/supported businesses. By and large, these businesses’ job retention average was far more than 50 percent losses,” she said.
The reality is most of these business owners spent 2020 just trying to survive, Dominguez said.
“Those that were able to keep the employee numbers they started 2020 with through today are to be commended at having achieved an amazing accomplishment and greatest service to our state and local economy,” she said.
Keeping that in mind, the state is rolling out a three-year plan to strengthen the tourism industry. Berry has a similar plan for the county.
“I am really trying to get my feet on the ground, in the communities, and making sure I am seeing firsthand what it is we have asset-wise,” Berry said.
Assets include NM 4 through Jemez Springs, Continental Divide trails in Cuba and the Ponderosa Valley Winery.
“When you really get up on the route 4 Jemez trail and you’re going through there, it really is the best of New Mexico,” he said.
Those that visit Albuquerque and Santa Fe seem to focus on what they can do in those cities when Sandoval County is right next door with so much to offer, he said.
“I really hope we can help our businesses in our jurisdiction capitalize, or piggyback, on some of the tourism dollars that are coming into those communities as well,” Berry said.
Part of the county’s bread and butter is local tourism.
“There is so much untapped market for our community here already, and so it is just making them aware of that and coming up with even, ‘Here is a good day itinerary,’ just go out and have fun,” he said.
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