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Canyon defying the odds Great Gas Crisis Local Paper Scans

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Canyon defying the odds
As foreign tourists ignore high gas prices, early-summer visitation to Grand Canyon National Park is up 15 percent over each of the last two years.

Sunday, July 20, 2008
Four dollars for a gallon of gasoline?
No problem, say foreign visitors to the Grand Canyon, where early-summer visitation is up a whopping 15 percent over the same period during each of the previous two years. The result has been a banner early summer for businesses at the gates of the South Rim.

"This is the best we've done," since at least 1996, said Julie Forsythe-Aldaz, who tracks business at Red Feather Lodge in Tusayan. The lodge's occupancy rates and rate per room are up from last year. She attributes it to more European visitors. Grand Canyon officials agree. "Our impression is that we're getting a lot more visitors from overseas with the weakness of the dollar, but we have no way of quantifying it," said Jim O'Sickey, who totals visitation and fee collection at Grand Canyon National Park. Also surprising has been the number of visitors headed to the North Rim. They are up by about 22 percent so far this year over last, at 88,714, even though it requires more driving for most visitors to get there. A number of Tusayan business managers attributed the strong early summer to the weak U.S. dollar and a steady or increasing number of international visitors.

Carvel Ice Cream and Grand Canyon Airlines are also reporting more business this year than last, with the airline saying this is one of their best years on record. Meanwhile, the Grand Canyon IMAX Theater reported an estimated decline of about 1 percent. European visitors have always been a core group of the Grand Canyon's demographic, and they differ from United States tourists in a few ways, said Freda Rahnenfuehrer, director of sales and marketing for the Best Western Grand Canyon Squire Inn in Tusayan. While American tourists skip a big dinner and forgo gifts to stick to a budget during tight times, the tourists from Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea and Western Europe don't.

"They do still eat in your restaurants. They do still shop for gifts. They do still take helicopter tours," she said. Her inn is doing "quite well," she said, and netting 5 percent more per room this summer than last. The weakness of the U.S. dollar has also greatly offset gasoline costs for a number of international visitors, she said, making gas prices less of a factor for foreigners. Her hotel is booked through mid-October, and she expects that to be the case again next year unless the cost or availability of international flights changes greatly. But with more airlines cutting flights and inevitably raising rates, she worries what that might mean for future travel and for towns like Tusayan, Flagstaff and Williams.

"In the park and in Tusayan," she said, "we have such a dependence on the international visitor."

Grand Canyon visitors
May and June

2008: 1,106,642
2007: 958,879
2006: 961,032
2005: 1,038,663

Grand Canyon visitors
January through June

2008: 2,025,907
2007: 2,017,664
2006: 2,018,987
2005: 2,059,872

Great Gas Crisis of 2008 no match for cheap dollar

Sunday, July 20, 2008
Who would have thought it: Gas is topping $4 a gallon, but visitation at the Grand Canyon thus far this year is up over the past two years.

The main reason appears to be the sagging value of the U.S. dollar, which has convinced enough foreign travelers to visit northern Arizona (and Las Vegas) to make up for the domestic long-distance travel falloff. Then there are the day-trippers from Phoenix, who are venturing as far as the high country this summer rather than San Diego. As a result, Flagstaff's hospitality industry is at least seeing sales on par with last year -- better than expected, considering the early-summer predictions of more Americans taking stay-at-home vacations. How important is tourism to Flagstaff? New City Manager Kevin Burke just promoted the head of the convention and visitors bureau to lead the new "economic vitality" division at City Hall, which should say it all.

The worry, of course, is that the falling dollar has to level off sometime, and when it does there is usually a rebound against other currencies. What would happen if travel by foreigners to the U.S. became more expensive, but high gas prices kept Americans home for the summer, too?

At this point, we can't worry about such future double-whammies. What's important is understanding the impact of the current intersection of the cheap dollar and expensive gas. At the Canyon, where most visitors plan their trips months and even years in advance, May and June saw nearly 150,000 more visitors this year than the same two months the year before. That's a rise of more than 15 percent -- and during the two months that saw the sharpest price spikes in gasoline. National park officials guesstimated that more foreign travelers were visiting, but hoteliers in nearly Tusayan didn't have to guess. They could tell by the home addresses on the room reservations -- and the accented English of their guests -- that this would be a banner year for foreign visitors.

Farther away in Flagstaff, drop-ins at the visitor center were down 9 percent in June compared with the previous year, but Lowell Observatory had its busiest June ever, with more than 10,000 visitors, most from Arizona.
Bed, board and beverage tax tallies are only available through May, but they show that hospitality spending at least is even with the previous year. The trend, however, has been a year-over-year increase for more than a decade (with the exception of 2001-2002 after the terrorist attacks). Hoteliers and restaurant owners will probably settle for flat sales amid a recession, but city officials who rely on hefty annual BBB tax increases to underwrite budget growth might be a little worried.

Interestingly, Cyndy Cole reports busy early summers at three of four local facilities catering to recreational vehicles, the biggest gas guzzlers of them all. RV park managers report that guests are staying closer to home this summer and parking their vehicles for good during their stay. At Flagstaff's bed and breakfasts, most innkeepers report more last-minute cancellations and shorter stays. None, however, is ready to toss in the towel on the summer. Shoring up the midweek hotel business will be the four-week visit of the Arizona Cardinals football team to Flagstaff starting this Wednesday. That's one week longer than usual, although by the final week of camp most kids in Arizona will already be back in school.

Did we mention school? Hard as it is to believe, local classes will get under way in less than a month, followed a week later by 12,000 students returning to NAU. We don't consider college students tourists, but their spending power has a similar effect on local BBB and retail sales during fall, winter and spring.

So if Flagstaff has gotten this far into the Great Gas Crisis of 2008 and not seen the bottom drop out of the local tourism economy, it's not likely to suffer greatly the rest of the year. We can be grateful that, in the minds of foreigners and Phoenicians, they don't make towns like Flagstaff anymore -- even if gas prices here are just as high or higher than anyplace else.

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Mailing Address:
508 N. Humphreys Street • Flagstaff, AZ 86001


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