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Rebuilding America: Tourism officials see silver lining to COVID-19 shutdown

Immediate future is grim, but better times may lie ahead

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — There has been precious little good news for the business community in San Juan County since the COVID-19 shutdown began in late March, and progress toward an economic reopening has been frustratingly slow for many merchants.

"The impact is devastating," said Tonya Stinson, executive director of the Farmington Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We'll just call it the way it is. Unfortunately, everyone is saying that, not just in our sector."

Stinson said she participates in weekly conference calls with other members of a statewide task force on tourism, and they all are reporting the same thing. Everyone is hoping to get back to business and see social distancing restrictions relaxed or eliminated, especially with summer coming on — traditionally the busiest season for those in the tourism industry.

Unfortunately, hard information about when that reopening might come has been hard to come by, she said.

"The information is so fluid," Stinson said. "It's changing day to day, and that makes it hard to plan."

The ruins at Chaco Culture National Historic Park are one of San Juan County's iconic attractions.

But many tourism officials are, by their nature, optimistic people, and Stinson is no exception. She said people in her industry are referring to figures from the Great Recession that started in 2007 — the closest model they can find to what is happening to the American economy now — and are taking heart from the fact that the tourism industry recovered relatively quickly from that setback.

And she is especially encouraged by surveys she has seen that indicate that many Americans are planning on avoiding overseas travel for the foreseeable future, although they are eager to get away from home as soon as they feel like it is safe to do so.

"People do say the first thing they want to do is travel and see friends and family," she said. "I think people will be more inclined to do a road trip. We have lots of wide-open spaces here, so that gives me a glimmer of hope. We are an outdoors destination."

The Museum of Navajo Arts and Culture in downtown Farmington showcases a wealth of rugs and other weavings by Navajo artists.

Indeed, there has been a strong push in San Juan County for more than a year to rebrand the area as a destination for those who enjoy such outdoors pursuits as fly fishing, whitewater rafting, hiking, mountain biking, camping, four wheeling and golf at such locations as the San Juan and Animas rivers, the Glade Run Recreation Area, the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, Farmington Lake and Piñon Hills Golf Course.

The county also has more than its share of attractions for those interested in Native American history and culture, including Aztec Ruins National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Salmon Ruins, the Museum of Navajo Art and Culture, the Shiprock pinnacle and dozens of trading posts and art galleries featuring the work of Native artists. That gives it undeniable appeal among vacationers who prefer having plenty of room to room and scenic vistas to enjoy instead of lying on a beach at a seaside resort or strolling through a museum or toney shopping and dining district in a large metropolitan area.

The rugged terrain of Glade Run Recreation Area attracts hikers and four wheelers alike.

Efforts to market those local attractions are at a standstill right now, Stinson said. That pause is something she finds especially frustrating, given her belief that substantial progress had been made on rebranding the area over the past 18 months.

"We thought we were primed for a great spring, summer and fall in 2020," she said. "It is disheartening. It's very hard. In fact, it's heartbreaking."

But as soon as a broader reopening of the economy occurs, she hopes the pandemic ironically might serve as a boon to New Mexico tourism. As fears linger among Americans about contracting the virus, many travelers may be eager to avoid congested cities or resorts and instead enjoy a vacation in an uncrowded, sunny and visually stimulating environment.

The Shiprock Trading Post in Farmington is one of several such historic establishments that continue to operate in the Four Corners region.

"That's what we're hoping," Stinson said. "That is what New Mexico has to offer."

Tourism long has been a significant part of the state's economy, with towns such as Santa Fe, Taos and Ruidoso traditionally relying on out-of-state visitors for a huge percentage of their income. But even those locations can get crowded in the summer, and Stinson is hopeful some vacationers who otherwise might have been inclined to overlook or dismiss the more-remote and lesser-known Four Corners as a travel destination will be inclined to give it a chance now.

"Yeah, I think so – I think it will change their mindset," she said. "I don’t think people are going to be rushing back to places where the masses are going."

Stinson emphasized she realizes San Juan County would not be prepared to handle an influx of visitors this summer, as it remains a hot spot for the spread of the virus. But she said new tourism industry models indicate that, whereas travelers used to reach out to organizations like hers only one to three months before they were planning a trip, they are now doing their travel planning five to seven months early — a time frame that could increase even more, depending on the success of efforts to contain the virus.

"Now is not the time," she said. "I think it's going to be 12 months before we could even consider a recovery."

Aztec Ruins National Monument offers a glimpse of what life was like several hundred years ago for the indigenous people of the Southwest.

Warren Unsicker, Farmington's economic development director who oversees the city's Outdoor Recreation Industries Initiative, sees the same silver lining as Stinson in the COVID-19 outbreak.

"The occupancy of our hotels and RV parks is in a lull right now, but as time goes on, this is where people are going to want to gravitate toward," he said. "They're going to want to be out camping where they can social distance."

There will be a growing appeal of the concept of "getting lost in a good way," as Unsicker put it, for many travelers as the pandemic slowly subsides.

"That is a competitive advantage," he said, adding that even people who come to the Four Corners just to camp are likely to spend money in local grocery stores or at retailers purchasing some kind of equipment. "It's going to be an economic benefit for our community. It's just going to look a little bit different. That word of mouth is really going to start to spread as people find their escape here in San Juan County."

While he agreed there is no point in trying to market Farmington area attractions right now, Unsicker said efforts to draw manufacturers of outdoors products to the area continue unabated. A major focus of the ORII project has been to get those manufacturers to perceive Farmington as a proving ground for their products, a place where they can be tested, created and enjoyed in short order.

"I think while it may have slowed some things down, it hasn't derailed anything," he said.

The Complete Streets renovation of downtown Farmington is nearing its halfway point, with phase one scheduled to be completed by the end of June.

Unsicker is just as excited about downtown Farmington's potential for drawing visitors once the Complete Streets project is done. The renovation of a six-block stretch of the downtown district into a more pedestrian- and shopping-friendly corridor is approaching its halfway point, with phase one of the project scheduled for completion by late June.

Most of the work so far has centered on infrastructure upgrades, and there have been numerous complaints by Main Street merchants about how the construction disrupted their business, even before the shutdown went into effect. But as phase one enters its final month and the more visible improvements begin to be made, Unsicker is hopeful that unhappiness will fade.

"The tangible physical product is something people will get excited about," he said. "It's not going to be just better water pressure and upgraded electrical lines. It's going to be the expanded sidewalks, the amenities and the landscaping that will get people excited."

Warren Unsicker.

Unsicker also looks forward to seeing those detour signs peppering the district begin to come down.

"More than anything, you're going to have open roads," he said. "I think people will be very pleased to have that. That will help us get back to some semblance of normal."

While a good deal of money is being pumped into the project — nearly $12 million, if the infrastructure work is included — Unsicker maintains it will have been a very worthwhile investment, and he expects entrepreneurs and visitors alike to flock to the upgraded district upon its completion.

"Absolutely," he said. "It makes it that much easier to put people downtown."

He pointed to the city's effort to expand its trails system along the Animas River corridor and said he foresees a day when those elements begin to work in harmony.

"You'll be able to take a bike ride from one end of town to another and stop off in downtown for lunch," he said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com.