Tourism officials hope Arizona’s climate trumps COVID-19 The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Tourism officials hope Arizona’s climate trumps COVID-19

December 20th, 2020 Mesa Tribune Staff
Tourism officials hope Arizona’s climate trumps COVID-19
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By Sydney Mackie
Tribune Contributor

Winter in Arizona usually signals a reprieve from intense heat as well as a time of economic prosperity for local businesses as visitors flee winter for Arizona’s kinder climes.

But the intensity of Arizona’s – and the nation’s – COVID-19 pandemic has left the season filled with uncertainty.

Local economists and business owners are wondering whether the draws of Arizona this winter will be enticing enough to encourage the annual arrival of snowbirds.

They’re banking that the attractions of Arizona’s weather and cultural offerings will trump pandemic concerns.

“Arizona’s fantastic year-round weather is our best asset and number one selling point during winter. To be able to golf, sit on a patio or enjoy a hike during this time of year is impossible in snow-covered parts of the country,” said Kim Sabow, president and CEO of the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association.

Gwen Gyug, a Canadian with a home in a 55-plus community, said there also are health benefits to spending time here during the coldest months of the year.

“As you age, the winters in Canada do take a toll on you as a senior,” Gyug said. “Warmer weather also gives you a better chance of living longer.”

In Canada, many activities must be put on hold for winter, as “when the temperature drops to below 30 degrees Celsius, or negative 22 degrees Fahrenheit.”

“Together with the added wind chill, it instantly causes the skin to freeze,” said Gyug.

Additionally, many Arizona cultural attractions, closed due to COVID-19, have reopened to the public recently.

The Phoenix Art Museum, the Arizona Museum of Natural History and the Arizona Opera are welcoming guests back with appropriate safety measures in place. 

“They love the arts; they love going out and spending money in restaurants,” said Glenn Williamson, the CEO and founder of the Canada Arizona Business Council.

“It’s not a vacation,” she added. “It’s a lifestyle, so they get up in the morning and they’re creatures of habit. They get their coffees, and they want breakfast with their friends. Then they might go and do a sport together.” 

According to the Canada Arizona Business Council, tourism is a $2.4 billion industry in Arizona and about $1.4 billion of that comes from Canadians.

After the initial outbreak of the pandemic in March, the U.S. and Canada acted quickly and temporarily restricted non-essential travel across the US-Canada land borders.

These restrictions have remained in effect and the most recent deadline for them to end is Dec. 21. 

Both governments had initially hoped to be open by April. Since March, however, that date has been extended seven times. 

Non-essential travel is defined by these countries as recreational, such as tourism. Essential travel for work and study, economic services and supply chains, health reasons, safety and critical infrastructure support can continue.   

The ban on car travel has already made an impact on Arizona businesses.

For example, Miguel Marquez’s RV repair company, Desert Mobile Home Services in Mesa, has felt the brunt.   

Noting as many as 160,000 winter visitors from Canada come to Arizona in RVs, he said, the ban “really affects towns like Mesa, Coolidge, Florence and Yuma.”

He said some communities “double in size.”

“This time, oh man, maybe a few cars from Canada,” Marquez said, describing the current state of his business. “Other years, it’s like hundreds of cars.” 

To combat these issues, the Mesa Chamber of Commerce is working to provide extra assistance to companies like Marquez’s, by providing personal protective equipment as well as legal and web development advice. 

“The city of Mesa received federal funding and put the Mesa Cares program in place to support small businesses,” said Sally Harrison, president and CEO of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile in the skies, Gregory E. Roybal, the spokesman for Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, said his airport has seen “strong demand for domestic leisure travel and 70 percent of our passengers are origin and destination passengers.” 

He noted the precautions the airlines are taking, such as enhanced cleaning protocols, hand sanitizer, plexiglass barriers at customer service counters, reconfigured seating at various restaurants and new handrail cleaning technology.

All these safeguards, he said, are convincing many travelers to feel comfortable boarding planes once again. 

Harrison agreed, saying that, “Many are coming back and flying into Gateway airport.” 

While a Canadian citizen could enter America by plane, they would have to quarantine for 14 days following their return home.   

To alleviate this issue, the Calgary airport is experimenting with a rapid-testing program that permits customers to get swabbed as soon as they land, and only quarantine for a few days until they get their result if the test shows they are negative for COVID-19. 

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that this “voluntary screening option will be available for foreign essential workers — truckers, health care and other workers who are exempt from the current federal travel ban — and any Canadian citizens returning to the country through Alberta.” 

Arizona, California, and Florida, the most popular destinations for these travelers, do not have any quarantine period. 

Many snowbirds have differing opinions on the matter of public safety and whether border restrictions should remain or be if they should be made looser to allow for more personal responsibility. 

“It’s pretty scary because I’m immunocompromised and because our numbers here in Canada are just growing incredibly, I don’t think they should have open borders,” said Bobbie McIntyre, winter visitor to Arizona for nearly 15 years.

Alternatively, some visitors are willing to accept the risks if it means returning to a place “they almost consider home,” Williamson said. 

Rhonda Miller, who has been vacationing here for 12 years, said, “Talking to my friends, even if the borders aren’t open after Christmas, I think we’re all gonna fly.”

However, this hinged on getting adequate travel insurance.

McIntyre explained that she was looking at an insurance package that included airlifted medical evacuation if needed. 

“My daughter was surprised I would even consider that,” she continued. “Really you do have to think about if it’s worth it for one winter.” 

Sabow, who has headed the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association for four years, stated the main concern in her industry now is rebuilding trust and ensuring the comfort of these longtime customers. 

“That is why AzLTA launched the AZSAFE+CLEAN Certification program in an effort to build consumer confidence and awareness about the safety and cleanliness of hotels and resorts in response to COVID-19,” Sabow said.   

The policy allows local businesses to adapt and continue providing valuable services while prioritizing the health and safety for their clients, especially those considered high risk. 

“Counting tourists that stay in hotels coming from Canada, we get about a million of those, and they bring in about $1 billion a year,” Sabow said.

Furthermore, many visitors have a deep sense of community and belonging here.

“We have friends that are American snowbirds, and we have those that we met on a cruise that go to Phoenix as well,” Gyug said, “We’ve got a lot of friends down there.”

Overall, Arizona’s local government and entrepreneurs are doing everything in their power to reinvite and entice these valued guests back to their second home, and it appears the risk may be worth it to many.

“I think this year, winter snowbirds are already coming down and I think it’s going to be a medium to good winter this year,” Williamson concluded.

McIntyre recalled her first trip to Arizona to illustrate the state’s lure for Canadians and residents of wintry states.

“It was like I had died and gone to heaven,” she said. “To get to go to these wonderful places all winter, I have no right to ever complain.”

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