How New Mexico tourism is surviving COVID-19

By Devin Muzzey / NM News Port

The coronavirus pandemic has forced people to shelter-in-place and businesses to close, putting a screeching halt to life as we know it. No sector in the Land of Enchantment has been spared, especially New Mexico tourism, the state’s second largest industry.

According to New Mexico’s most recent labor market review, the leisure and hospitality sector suffered the largest economic setback in 2020 with 24,500 jobs lost, a 24.5% drop from the same time last year. 

COVID-19 restrictions implemented with the aim of slowing the spread of the virus continue to harm New Mexico tourism, making it difficult for businesses to operate and for visitors to indulge. Events like the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which generated over $186 million of economic impact for Albuquerque, were cancelled.

The state’s tourism department projects it may take between six and seven years for a full recovery of the tourism industry without additional support for marketing and promotion.

Out-of-state visitors are subject to a 14-day quarantine when entering New Mexico or for however long their visit lasts, whichever is shorter. Also, destinations such as state parks are only allowing state residents to visit their grounds.

In response to record numbers of COVID-19 cases, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a new two week stay-at-home order on Nov. 16. The order included the temporary closure of nonessential businesses.

New Mexico is now slowly starting to reopen its economy, but several constraints remain in place.

Even with out-of-state visitors continuing to face restrictions, tourist sites and businesses continue to operate, but with more of an emphasis on local consumption. 

Albuquerque couple Bob and Patty Kuning recently went on an overnight RV camping trip to Elephant Butte right before the state’s most recent lockdown went into effect. 

“We’d never been there before, but we heard it was kind of stark. Nothing couldn’t have been further from the truth,” Patty Kuning said. “It was really quite beautiful.”

The Kunings wanted to take a break after being active in this year’s election. They said they felt completely safe and practiced public health measures such as having a socially distanced campfire with other friends who were also at the lake. 

“If you follow some smart protocols, staying outside, not going into each other’s RVs, stuff like that, I don’t see how there could be much issue with that,” Bob Kuning said. “I feel pretty safe.”

Relief for tourism industry on the way

State government officials have recently announced plans that should help alleviate the hard-hit tourism industry. 

In November, Lujan Grisham proposed a $25 million stimulus package for the state’s tourism industry to help shorten the recovery timeline.

“This economic stimulus package for the tourism industry will expedite our state’s efforts to diversify our economy and get back on track,” Lujan Grisham said at a press conference last month.

Department officials say that the governor’s proposed stimulus package would be used to amplify advertising and marketing when the pandemic gets under control. 

“An investment of $25 million for marketing and promotion could save an estimated $1.9 billion for the state and could help shorten the recovery window for the tourism industry by three years,” Cody Johnson, public information officer for the New Mexico Tourism Department, said.

“New Mexico has its own unique beauty and there’s still so much to see that we haven’t seen yet.”

— Albuquerque resident Bob Kuning

State lawmakers also approved a stimulus bill that includes allocating $100 million to help support small businesses, many of which rely on out-of-state visitors. A portion of that will be designated for the hospitality and tourism industry in the form of a grant program.

“We certainly hope that as many tourism-related small businesses as possible take advantage of this aid when the application process for these grants open up, which should happen here very soon,” Johnson said.

National Geographic recently named New Mexico as one of the top travel picks for culture and history for 2021, further establishing promotion for the state and leaving travelers from around the world eager to explore what the state has to offer.

Devin Muzzey is a reporter for the New Mexico News Port. He can be reached on Twitter @MuzzeyDevin or at nmnewsport@gmail.com.