Writer: D'Lyn Ford
ACOMA - Tourism in New Mexico surged nearly 12 percent last year as visitors flocked to the state's rural attractions in numbers not seen since 1995, said New Mexico Tourism Secretary Fred Peralta in a keynote address at the fourth annual Rural Economic Development Through Tourism (REDTT) conference in Acoma.
"We had 11.6 million visitors last year, representing a substantial increase over the 10.4 million tourists we tracked in 2001," Peralta said. "There's been peaks and valleys in recent years, but 2002 marked our best performance since the state's banner year in 1995."
Tourism peaked at 12 million visitors in 1995, but then gradually declined until bottoming out at 9.7 million visitors in 2000, Peralta said. The Cerro Grande fire north of Los Alamos in 2000, the recession in 2001 and the terrorist attacks that year all contributed to the slump.
"The challenge now is to make people more aware of all the attractions we have in New Mexico so that they keep coming back and visiting more places," Peralta said. "We need to work together to create package experiences in rural areas that motivate visitors to tour many of the communities they pass through en route to other attractions."
Educating and motivating rural communities to work together to increase tourism is the central goal of REDTT, a New Mexico State University program funded by a U.S Department of Agriculture grant and coordinated by NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. About 300 participants from rural areas around the state attended this year's conference April 28-29, said REDTT director Mike Cook.
"It's an opportunity for tourism professionals and volunteers from all over the state to exchange ideas and find ways to cooperatively plan and work on projects," Cook said. "REDTT offers new concepts in community partnering, and that's critical to rural tourism and tourism in general."
By working together, rural communities in particular can capitalize on the current tourism boom, because most visitors to New Mexico are now heading to countryside attractions rather than urban areas, said Paul Narbutas, the state Tourism Department economist who compiled the statistics for Peralta's speech.
Although the state surveys more than 200 New Mexico locations, Narbatus compiled statistics from 21 of the most-rural tourist destinations-non-metro areas located far from interstate highways, such as Silver City, Ruidoso and Farmington.
"Visitation in the most-rural destinations increased 5 percent between 2001 and 2002," Narbatus said. "Albuquerque and Santa Fe were flat at best, so the rural areas easily outperformed them."
Moreover, about 74 percent of visitors to New Mexico traveled by car last year, representing a 20 percent jump in the drive market compared with 2001, Narbatus said.
"The huge volume of auto traffic last year was even higher than in the peak years of 1994 and 1995," Narbatus said. "That bodes well for rural communities that seek tourists who travel off the beaten paths."
REDTT has already helped many counties tap the drive market. The program began in 1992 in just five counties but has since expanded to 16, including all of southern New Mexico plus Cibola, Guadalupe and Sandoval counties in the north. A 13 percent increase in REDTT's budget this year will also allow Quay County to join.
REDTT offers technical assistance, training and grants to tourism councils in member counties to help them identify and market tourism assets, Cook said. This year, for example, a REDTT grant will help Catron and Socorro counties promote a tour of the old cattle trail that cowboys used until the 1940s to drive herds from Arizona to Magdalena for rail shipment to other states. Another grant will help Sierra County promote the Geronimo Trail Scenic Byway.
REDTT helps promote existing local festivals and create new ones. It also provides free hospitality training.
At the conference, participants attended a variety of workshops, such as Internet marketing, working with the media, and accessing grants. Perhaps most important, they exchanged ideas and learned about projects in neighboring counties during round-table discussions that aimed to strengthen tourism partnerships.
"We're learning how to build together and piggyback on each other's attractions," Peralta said. "It's all about working cooperatively to make tourism a growing, thriving industry in our communities."
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