The local tourism sector, already struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic, took another major blow late last month when the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society announced the cancellation of the 2021 Tucson Gem and Mineral Show at the Tucson Convention Center.
After carefully considering the implications of hosting the show—the main event of a series of showcases that usually takes mid-January through mid-February—during a pandemic, the society decided to cancel the show that has awed Tucsonans and drawn tourists to the region for more than 60 years.
“We hoped for the best, we planned as though we were going to have a show, and it ultimately got to the point where we realized we simply couldn’t do it, or I should say, we simply shouldn’t do it,” said Peter Megaw, co-chair of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society Show.
The Arizona Department of Tourism estimates the show that brings in a wide array of tourists and collectors to admire the gem, mineral, fossil and meteorite collections generates nearly $130 million for Tucson’s economy every year.
Visit Tucson, the city’s tourism marketing organization, estimates the collective Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase brought $40 million in lodging revenue to Tucson in February 2020.
Gem and Mineral Show cancellation part of larger pattern of Tucson’s tourism downturn
The cancellation of one of the state’s largest tourist attractions is part of a broader pattern of an economic hit Tucson has taken as coronavirus maintains its grip on the nation. Fear of the coronavirus has discouraged many leisure tourists, companies have dramatically reduced business travel and many conventions have been canceled. On top of that, states have varying travel restrictions.
Jennifer Pullen, a senior research economist from the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, says Tucson relies on tourism dollars to sustain its economy.
“[Tourism] brings individuals to the state which helps boost the economy in terms of revenue, people coming and staying at hotels and eating in local restaurants and shopping with local businesses,” Pullen said. “So it really is a fairly significant contributor to our regional economy as well as our state economy.”
Pullen is the coordinator for the MAP (Making Action Possible) dashboard, which collects and analyzes socio-economic data and compares southern Arizona to other western states and metropolitan areas.
One report Pullen wrote examines how the Tucson Metropolitan Statistical Area—the same geographic region as Pima County—has borne the brunt of COVID-19 in its tourism industry.
Jobs in Tucson declined 20 percent in the leisure & hospitality industry between the second quarter of 2019, which takes place April through June, and the second quarter of 2020, according to Pullen’s research published Sept. 17.
The leisure and hospitality sector comprised 11 percent of total employment in Tucson in 2019, the report says. Of all the jobs that make up this sector—arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodations and food service jobs—90 percent of them were in accommodation and food services.
In Tucson, jobs in accommodation declined 32 percent, food service jobs declined 19 percent while arts, entertainment and recreation jobs declined 8 percent, according to the report.
As a wide range of travel restrictions, as well as safety concerns, have kept visitors from coming to the state, Pullen believes the decline is mainly “due to people not traveling.”
Among restaurants and bars, the hotel and airline industries have been hardest hit by the “COVID-19 downturn,” the report says. Pima County’s lodging occupancy rate in the second quarter of 2020 was 34 percent, and the statewide rate was 37 percent.
The Tucson International Airport experienced a 94 percent decline in passengers from April 2019 compared to April 2020. The report notes, however, all Arizona airports except Show Low Regional had an over 90 percent reduction in passenger enplanements and deplanements.
Tourism industry thriving before COVID-19
Tourists aren’t flying in for large attractions like the gem show, public recreational activities can be dangerous if not properly socially distanced and many restaurants have reduced seating and other safety regulations to adhere to.
But before these precautions against coronavirus became a reality, the tourism industry was booming. According to Dan Gibson, the senior director of communications for Visit Tucson, in 2019, visitors spent $2.6 billion in Pima County, generating $80 million in local taxes and $139 million in state taxes.
“These pretty successful years of back to back increases in the amount of tourism and the number of people coming here and the amount of money that was making, it’s just such a big part of Tucson’s economy in the larger sense,” Gibson said. “When you’re looking at that, it’s a lot of money. It’s $530 in tax savings for every Pima County household.”
Although the first few months of 2020 went without widespread event cancellations, and the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show went on as planned, the tourism industry quickly took a downturn in March.
“2020 is a much different thing, and even January and February were really good for Tucson tourism. But the bottom falling out of that is a significant amount of impact on just the amount of people coming to Tucson and the amount of money they’re spending,” Gibson said.
However, compared to peer western metropolitan areas, Tucson showed the lowest decline in jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector, according to MAP.
“I think it has a lot to do with just our job mix. With places like Las Vegas, Portland, San Diego, a lot of people go there to visit, so they have a lot more just tourism in general,” Pullen said. “Also, some of it has to do with different policies that were implemented state by state, whether or not restaurants and bars shut down or not. Some of it has to do with policy and some has to do with just general tourism.”
Compared to other metropolitan areas in Arizona, Tucson saw the third-lowest decrease in leisure and hospitality employment. Arts and entertainment jobs declined 44% in Phoenix, but only 8% in Tucson.
Pullen says the latest third-quarter data reveals a brighter future for Tucson’s tourism industry, and leisure and hospitality jobs increased 7% when comparing 2020’s second quarter to third quarter. According to Pullen, food services and drinking places also improved with a 12% employment increase.
“There’s a definite improvement in the overall tourism and leisure and hospitality sector in the third quarter of 2020, though accommodations have still been hit pretty hard, kind of hovering right around a 30% decline from this time last year,” Pullen said.
As employment data in the hospitality sector improves, it may also be able to rely on more funding in the coming months.
On Nov. 6, Governor Doug Ducey announced a $7 million influx of federal CARES Act funds “to support economic recovery efforts,” according to a press release. The funding will be distributed as follows:
- $3 million to the Arizona Office of Tourism (AOT) to develop “a strategic recovery plan.”
- $1 million to AOT for domestic marketing efforts for states such as California, Illinois, Minnesota and Texas.
- $1 million to the Arizona Commerce Authority (ACA) to reach out to businesses to expand or relocate across the state.
- $1 million to the ACA for “capital funding” for the state’s “small businesses and entrepreneurs.”
- $1 million to “local chambers of commerce” for local economic recovery programs.
“Thousands of Arizonans employed by the hospitality industry have been impacted and displaced by this pandemic, and we continue to fight for them,” Ducey said in the press release. “As we make sure Arizonans have access to the social safety net, we also want to give them the opportunity to work. Today’s funding will protect livelihoods, highlight the robust mitigation measures Arizona has put in place, and keep our economy moving forward.”
Pullen is optimistic that the tourism picture will brighten but adds that much depends on whether the outbreak subsides or worsens.
“Hopefully, we’re going to continue to see this improvement in employment in the leisure and hospitality sector, a lot of that is just going to depend on what happens this fall with the COVID pandemic if we get another increase in the virus,” Pullen said.
Although Gibson says Visit Tucson is trying to promote safe, revenue-generating tourism options, the unpredictability of the pandemic will continue to challenge the region’s tourism industry.
“We’re seeing people in the tourism industry say that tourism won’t be back to 2019 levels until 2024. So there’s a real challenge in this business, and it’s not just a concern for people who work at hotels, it’s a concern for the city as a whole,” Gibson said. “State estimates are that 50% of people in the tourism industry are not back to work yet. It’s very difficult for people to realize just how important tourism is for our economy. It’s impossible for that not to have an impact on our community.”
Ultimately, as coronavirus cases continue in an upward trend in the state, Megaw from the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society says the cancellation of the tourist-attracting show is in the best interest of public safety.
“We obviously regret the economic impact, but we think long-term, the impact of having hosted the Tucson gem and mineral super-spreader would have longer-lasting negative economic impact than canceling our show for a year,” Megaw said.
“Yes, it’s going to hurt, I don’t think anybody can stop that from happening. I think it could hurt a lot worse if people tried to have events like ours and that resulted in a number of serious illnesses and fatalities.”