Photo gallery: Sips and Skies (copy)

Participants in the 2018 Sky Island Summit Challenge share a lighthearted moment before beginning. The event is one of many which draws tourists and their vital spending to the area.

BISBEE — “It is not a stretch to say that Bisbee is dependent on tourism.”

That’s the conclusion reached by Fred Miller, owner of Copper City Inn and data collector of Bisbee’s tourism industry.

“Although impossible to verify, direct and indirect spending on tourism is about 55 percent of consumption spending in Bisbee though it is an imprecise category to be sure. That is the figure that Robert Carriera and I arrived at informally a couple of years ago,” Miller said.

Carrriera, as the director and chief economist for the Center for Economic Research at Cochise College, provides annual reports on the economy, including tourism, for the cities of Bisbee, Sierra Vista, Benson and Douglas

Miller spoke with the Herald/Review about the importance of tourism.

“One of the ways I measure economic importance is to imagine what our town would be like if tourism were drastically cut by 50 percent,” he said. “Bisbee would revert to near ghost town status. Safeway and the two hardware stores would go away, most restaurants would fail, many of the businesses would either close or limp along.”

“Lodging would be hard to find. City services would be dropped and curtailed. It would be akin to what happened when Phelps Dodge stopped mining.”

While the recession caused a marked reduction in tourism, it has been building back up in Bisbee, albeit slower than other cities in the state. Visitors affect the economy in ways that cannot be counted just by pairs of feet walking the streets or heads in beds. Tourism creates jobs and markets for services in the city.

Miller says the way forward needs to include putting a bed tax increase on the 2020 ballot and “a public conversation about tourism in Bisbee in order to give direction to the city council as well as to forge the way forward regarding visitation to Bisbee.

“Tourism brings economic gains for our city and cultural insights for visitors, but it can’t be at the expense of people living here,” he added. “There has to be a balance between opportunity and preservation.”

Bisbee has many delights to offer, from eclectic events to quaint accommodations and fine dining. Unfortunately, there is no one in the position to set the tourism wheel in motion.

The Visitor Center manager resigned in December after bringing the city to prominence, noted Miller. He, and other business owners, would like to see the city put more money into the position to attract someone who would continue to promote the area.

Sierra Vista, which has taken a proactive stance on developing tourism, has marketed the city and recognized the importance in bringing visitors to the city. Finding new ways to attract them is an ever-expanding objective.

Judy Hector, marketing and public affairs manager, said, “With a fresh focus on sports tourism, the city is actively improving our sports facilities and seeking tournaments to host.”

“Last year, we hosted five tournaments” she said. Those events brought in more than $200,000, and this year eight planned tournaments could bring in an estimated $350,000, she said.

“Ongoing facilities improvements, coupled with our excellent weather, are paving the way for Sierra Vista to become a city of choice for regional tournaments in the Southwest,” she added.

The city is finding success in sports tourism with the Sky Islands Summit Challenge, now in its third year, she said. The interest in the hike up the Huachuca Mountains’ highest peaks, Carr and Miller, continues to grow.

In 2018, 136 athletes gave the challenge a shot. It was a 156 percent increase over the first year, and 50 of them were from the Phoenix and Tucson areas. Overall, out-of-town hikers outnumbered local participants.

“Sierra Vista Tourism is partnering with the city’s economic development, sports and leisure divisions to cross-promote Sierra Vista, aiming for more impactful messaging,” Hector said.

“Likewise, we are planning to place lifestyle advertising in target markets that research shows are shared by both our tourism and economic development efforts. This will help position Sierra Vista as a great place to live, while more focused economic development efforts can address our pro-business amenities.”

Sierra Vista does not collect a bed tax. Instead, overnight and long-term lodgers pay an extended-stay tax on all rental units to include hotels, motels, apartments and home rentals over any length of time, Hector explained. The tax is collected regardless of length of stay.

In 2018, the tax generated $866,663, which goes into the city’s general fund, she continued.

“More than the amount collected is invested in economic development activities, to include tourism marketing, business attractions and sports tourism, along with other economic development projects,” she said.

In the 2018 calendar year, Sierra Vista collected $2.3 million in tax revenue from restaurant and bar sales, one of the statistics she uses to track the economic impact of tourism.

She works closely with the Cochise County Tourism Council and the Arizona Office of Tourism. “The bottom line is that efforts by Sierra Vista, Cochise County and the state tourism office all increase visitation.”

“This data is the result of just a slice of Sierra Vista’s tourism marketing efforts, as we are also working with travel writers and placing paid advertising in other media.”

In Benson, Bob Nilson, Tourism Department, said, “I have always based my Benson marketing plan off the Cochise County Visitor Study 2012-2013 done by NAU.”

“The majority of the people coming here are looking for historical points of interest as well as National Parks. I do target the RV people from the cold north region as well as Canada as we have 1,100 RV parks.”

In 2017, the city saw an 11.1 percent increase in hotel/motel receipts, for a total of $4.743 million.

Amanda Baillie, county public information officer, said in a recent presentation to the Board of Supervisors, “Tourism is Arizona’s number one industry.”

In Cochise County, travel spending brought in $326 million which supported 3,630 tourism-related jobs, she stated. Through the use of various social media sites, YouTube and soon podcasts, interest in the county is growing. The developing wine industry in the county is also creating a buzz.

According to the AOT, in 2017 some 43.9 million visitors spent more than $22.7 billion in Arizona, generated more than $3.3 billion in tax revenue for the state and provided 187,100 jobs.

What did the travelers do while in the state? In 2017, 84 percent said they were on leisure trips, with 16 percent were in the state on business, states the AOT website. Three–quarters of the them were non-residents with a median age of 45. Growth continued in the leisure segment, with a 3.5 percent gain in the fourth quarter of 2017. State and National Park visitation increased which created an increase in leisure and hospitality jobs and lodging demands.

In the Tucson and southern Arizona region, 6.5 million people stayed overnight, grabbing 17 percent of the visitors to Arizona, the AOT says. The region bested the state in leisure travel with 88 percent coming for pleasure. The average age of visitors was 50. They came for the shopping, the national and state parks, fine dining and trips to landmarks and historic sites.

An AOT 2017 study found the wine tourism industry created over $56.1 million in total economic impact and created over 640 full-time equivalent jobs. Nearly $4 million in local and state taxes were generated from wine tourism, which includes the wineries of Willcox, Elgin and Sonoita. All totaled, there are 426 wineries in the state.

How do people hear about wineries? The survey put brochures in the top position, more effective than some forms of social media.

Cochise County and its cities are all vying for the tourist dollar and are putting their heads together to promote tourism in all its forms and colors in every way possible to attract vacationers. If they can get them to Cochise County, the options are endless.