Golden Light Reflects Off The Buildings In The Downtown City Center Of Tucson Arizona

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ith COVID-19 spreading rapidly throughout Arizona, businesses that depend on tourism have already had a tough year and things are not looking a lot brighter as Arizona becomes one of the world’s worst-hit regions.

Dan Gibson, a spokesperson for Visit Tucson, said March and April were especially tough on an industry that depends on people taking vacations in the region.

“Times where we would have had hotels 80 to 90 percent full, went down to 10 to 20 percent full,” Gibson said. “We’re starting to see that rebound somewhat, but it’s definitely a long game.”

Not only does tourism provide more than 25,000 jobs to the local economy, Gibson said the sales and bed tax revenue collected from visitors has a direct benefit for local residents. In 2018, it reduced each household’s tax burden in Pima County by $510.

“You’re talking about real money that makes a difference in what our community is able to afford for itself,” Gibson said. “There are trickle-down effects to parks and public safety that people are reliant on.”

He encourages people to engage with local tourism and food industries in a way that feels safe to them. When people can feel comfortable enough to order take-out from a local restaurant or do a staycation at a local resort, that puts people back to work.

“These are our neighbors and the effects are real,” Gibson said.

In an effort to help sustain tourism and cultural programs, the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted last month to provide $380,000 from next year’s county budget to aid nine local nonprofits.

Lodging, dining, sports games, concerts and other activities have been halted for nearly four months to curb the spread of the virus, and have seriously impacted the local economy. Pima County’s Attractions and Tourism Director Diane Frisch reports that tourism brought nearly $2.5 billion to Pima County in 2018.

Local tourism organizations are trying to find new ways to operate while protecting public health.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, attractions are open with limited capacity and events altered to accommodate physical distancing,” Frisch said. “These nonprofits need our assistance now more than ever as we navigate these unprecedented times.”

The funding will help these groups put on events and programs that are possible during COVID-19. But if any events are canceled due to risks from the virus, the money will simply carry over to next year.

The recipients are the Ajo District Chamber of Commerce, Arts Foundation for Tucson & Southern Arizona, International Sonoran Desert Alliance, Portable Practical Educational Preparation, Southwest Folklife Alliance, Children’s Museum of Tucson, Perimeter Bicycling, Tucson Botanical Gardens and the Tucson Presidio for Historic Preservation.

The Attractions & Tourism Department works as a liaison with businesses in the tourism community. 

The $380,000 is part of a two-year grant. The nonprofits went through an application process with the Attractions & Tourism Outside Agency Citizen Review Committee, which has one representative from each supervisor’s district and one from the county administrator.

Before COVID-19, Frisch said Pima County had an “outstanding” number of visitors. But 2020 has been a challenge.

“It’s been devastating to the industry and Pima County, but we’re slowly and safely beginning to open again,” she said. “It’s going to be a long process, it’s not going to be something that happens overnight.”

Some attractions have found a way to open with increased sanitary precautions. Pima Air & Space Museum reopened with the advantage of having large hangars where people can physically distance from each other. They added touchless water fountains, one-way traffic rules and they are no longer serving food. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum recently reopened with limited admissions through online reservations, timed entry and one-way paths through the garden. Some of their high-touch features remain closed.

Frisch said each organization has had to make tough decisions about what is safe, what can be sanitized for the public, all depending on the varying designs of their operations.

Other places like the Children’s Museum, a recipient of the county’s funding, have remained closed since March. Teresa Truelsen, the museum’s director of marketing, said it was a tough decision to close the museum but it was necessary due to the hands-on nature of a children’s learning environment.

Three months later, the museum is down to a “skeleton crew.” Truelsen said they have been using the closure to update their exhibits and provide new features for when they reopen.

“It’s going to have a little bit of a different look, it’s going to have some updates, so we’re hoping to be able to show that we’ve used this time to the best advantage to the museum that we could,” she said.

Without admission revenue, the museum has already lost a large chunk of their yearly funding. While it will take them a while to recover, Truelsen said they’re excited to welcome children back inside their doors.

The Children’s Museum plans to reopen in August with limited admission and timed entry.