/ Modified jan 31, 2014 11:20 a.m.

Experts: Feb. Peak of Tourism in Tucson, Not as High as It Was

With the gem show underway, visitors from all over coming in, however since 2008 number of tourists has declined.



February is the peak of tourist season in the Old Pueblo as the Gem and Mineral Show and other events kick off.

Just after 5:30 p.m., lawyers and government employees are streaming out of their offices, but the restaurants in downtown Tucson aren't filled with these professionals. They are bustling largely with visitors from out of town.

Tucson's tourism season runs January through March, when droves of visitors descend on the city in search of warmer temperatures. However, February is charged with events, such as the gem show, the rodeo, and this year the city will host ten Major League Soccer teams during pre-season training, attracting even more tourists.

For instance, during the two-week gem show, more than 55,000 buyers, collectors, dealers and visitors come to Tucson.

"It can generate as much as a quarter of a half of your yearly income," said Zee Haag, a mineral vendor. "For me, it's less than that but it is (still) significant. It's the most significant show in the world of it's type."

Haag, who has attended the gem show since the 1970s, and lives in Tucson, said over the last few years, he saw a steep drop in the numbers of visitors to his booth and sales at the show. He said he attributes it to the rough economic climate.

Brent Deraad, the president and CEO of Visit Tucson, the city's tourism bureau, said in 2007 the show injected an estimated $100 million into the local economy. That figure plummeted to $65 million when the recession was at its worst.

Deraad said it is not just the gem show but the entire tourism sector that has taken a deep blow since 2008.

"Since the recession Tucson really has suffered from a tourism perspective," he said. "Anything from lost flights to the impact of SB 1070 those are things that have really hurt Arizona when it comes to diminishing numbers of meetings coming in. Those are things that have been of concern."

A study commissioned by the Arizona Office of Tourism put total direct travel spending at $2.7 million in Pima County in 2912, roughly the same as it was in 2006.

Alberta Charney, an economist at the UA's Economic and Business Research Center, said employment at Tucson hotels and resorts peaked in 2000, and have fallen 37 percent since then.

While she said the worst is over for the city's tourism industry, the recovery appears only tepid.

"The country is is still sort of suffering, as a whole," Charney said. "To get here you’ve almost always gotta take two flights. The country is suffering in terms of median wage. It’s a luxury to travel. But to just take a vacation to lounge at a resort is really a luxury these days for the majority of American households."

Deraad said he expects the tourism sector to be relatively flat this year compared to last.

In addition to the tough economic times, the departure in 2010 of Major League Baseball's spring training also had a negative impact on the sector. And there's also had a negative impact on the sector. There is also talks that 2014 could be the last year for Accenture Match Play Golf Championship, which has taken place in Marana since 2007.

Deraad said Visit Tucson is trying to take a new marketing approach for the city.

“We spend a lot of time in this market trying to save things that we have rather than going out and finding things that are new," Deraad said. "And that’s a dynamic that we need to turn around as a destination. We need to find a way to secure the events that we have but then find a way to build upon that, and it’s going to take the community working together.”

Despite the lackluster outlook for the tourism industry, extreme temperatures in much of the country do offer glimmers of hope for Tucsonans that rely on a strong visitor season.

Visit Tucson runs ad campaigns in Chicago anytime the temperature falls below 20 degrees there. However, that campaign has already run out of money because of so many days of consistently cold weather this year.

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