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Tourism Group Reaches Out to Potential Visitors from Chihuahua

ALAMOGORDO - Tourism promoters are showing off stunning sunsets over White Sands National Monument, a mountain-top solar observatory and scenic Old Mesilla to attract more visitors from a market of 3.5 million in the nearby Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Otero County Cooperative Extension Service program director Phil Wright, right, outlines the history of Otero County during a tour of the ruins of Frenchy's cabin at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park near Alamogordo. The state park was one of 15 stops last month at tourist destinations in Otero and Doņa Ana counties intended to familiarize Mexican tourism professionals with attractions in the two counties. (11/02/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

Members of New Mexico State University's Rural Economic Development Through Tourism (REDTT) program in Doņa Ana and Otero counties invited travel agents and tour promoters from Chihuahua to tour 15 attractions in mid-October.

"Most of them said they had no idea of the attractions we have," said Phil Wright, program director at NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service office in Otero County. "We had a sense that what was happening was that most of the travel agents in Mexico were sending people to Ruidoso. We wanted to let them know what we had to offer as well, as a day trip or an alternative destination."

Young families who would drive a few hours to New Mexico are a prime market, said Pablo Leos, who directs the New Mexico Department of Tourism offices in the cities of Chihuahua and Juarez. Half the population in the state of Chihuahua is 15-30 years old, he said. Already, some 160,000 tourists from Mexico visit New Mexico each year, with 80 percent coming from the state of Chihuahua. Leos believes that with the proper marketing, that number can easily increase.

According to information gathered at the state's nine visitor information centers, although Mexico is far closer, most foreign visitors stopping at the centers are from Canada, followed by Germany and Great Britain. Mexican visitation at the centers ranks sixth.

REDTT director Dora Dominguez said the two-county tour complements the state's Two-Nation Vacation partnership, announced last year by Gov. Bill Richardson and Chihuahua Gov. Patricio Martinez. The partnership between New Mexico and the state of Chihuahua is intended to promote the two states as a regional tourism destination.

Dominguez said the project also is a chance to encourage tour operators who are planning trips to central and northern New Mexico to make an extra stop or two in southern New Mexico.

"This can enhance tours already in place," Dominguez said. With so many things to see and do here, it also may prompt tour operators to plan another night's stay, she said.

The 15 destinations the group visited are all within a 90-minute drive from the city of Juarez and a 5-hour drive from the city of Chihuahua.

"They're very affordable, very friendly, very convenient," Leos said. In Otero County, the group visited White Sands National Monument, the National Solar Observatory at Sunspot, the New Mexico Museum of Space History, the Burro Street shopping area and the Lodge in Cloudcroft, Eagle Ranch Pistachio Groves near Alamogordo and Oliver Lee Memorial State Park south of Alamogordo.

In Doņa Ana County, they toured Old Mesilla, White Sands Missile Range museum, the Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, Veterans Memorial Park in Las Cruces, Fort Selden State Monument at Radium Springs, the Mesilla Valley Maze, La Viņa Winery and Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino.

Estibaliz Rascon found a lot of destinations to promote when she returns to her job in Juarez as a travel agent at Turimex de Chihuahua. She's especially interested in the possibility of setting up tours for schools.

"In the city, you are accustomed to being around the buildings and the cars," Rascon said. "By bringing more children, they'll get a better appreciation for nature. We have to teach children to appreciate the things we have in nature, and we can do that through tourism."

Laura Pulido, an administrative assistant for FAAMA tour operators in Juarez, said her company contacts schools to set up bus tours, and the New Mexico trip has given her a lot of new ideas.

"All of these places are amazing," she said. "It's such a different landscape." A stop at Eagle Ranch Pistachio Groves near Alamogordo, for example, would be a good place for students to learn about agriculture.

"Most of us cannot imagine what's behind a package of pistachios," Pulido said.

She said tourists from Juarez, in particular, would be interested in coming to southern New Mexico, especially during holiday weekends when a 90-minute drive into New Mexico would be preferable to a half-day's drive south to the city of Chihuahua. Pulido said well-publicized schedules of events would help draw more people from Mexico.

Wright said the project was a good chance for the New Mexicans to learn about attracting tourists from Mexico.

"It gave us insight into their market: how we need to market and what they're looking for," he said. For example, they showed a particular interest in the history and technology exhibits at the White Sands Missile Range museum and the region's golf courses. They told the tourism promoters that unlike a typical U.S. family that travels as a single unit of three or four people, a group coming from Chihuahua could include 10-12 people in an extended family.

Wright said another benefit of the project was the chance to open a door for other tourism promoters. "I really look for a spark for other REDTT counties to maybe build upon that and do some familiarization tours for this group as well," he said.

The project was organized and partially funded by the 13-year-old REDTT project, which is guided by REDTT councils in 17 counties in a collaborative effort that creates a significant amount of tourist-generated economic development for some of the state's smaller communities. REDTT is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.