SAFFORD — A recent report by the Arizona Office of Tourism showed that Graham and Greenlee counties generated the least amount of tourism spending of any of Arizona’s 15 counties.
Graham pulled in $2.7 million in tourism spending in 2018 (the last year for which data was available), while Greenlee accounted for $200,000. Maricopa County led the way with $773 million in visitor spending, followed by Coconino County with $79.1 million.
The Courier reached out to the two tourism agencies in the area — the Graham County Chamber of Commerce and the Greenlee County Tourism Council — to find out why local officials believe the area is so far behind the rest of the state and what’s being done to improve tourism spending in the area.
On the question of why visitor spending is so significantly behind the other parts of the state, Graham County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vance Bryce said, “I don’t believe that we have had an adequate marketing plan for our region. There are much smaller, remote destinations where visitor spending is much higher.
“No marketing plan, no matter how much money you throw at it, will be successful, unless you are showcasing an authentic place and experience. Our working theory at the chamber is that our residents need to love living here so much that their family members and friends will want to visit them and enjoy our area. We need to dig deep to learn why we live here, and what we have to share with the world.”
Jon Antonson, treasurer for the Greenlee County Tourism Council, said, “There are many reasons, but for Greenlee County the primary ones come down to population, geography and periodic disasters. First, Greenlee County being the most sparsely populated county in Arizona (and second smallest geographically), we have a smaller ‘footprint.’ So we have fewer people to advocate for our county, fewer to represent ourselves when we travel to other areas and fewer people to build and support the kind of infrastructure many tourists seek when they travel. To be blunt, we presently do not have the lodging, upscale restaurants, varied shopping and commercial attractions so many visitors look for to be entertained.”
The Courier then asked what the agencies are doing to get spending on the upswing.
“Last month, the Graham County Board of Directors passed our new three-year action plan, as well as funding for some programming for these efforts,” Bryce said. “The first action for the tourism piece . . . is to develop a brand for the Graham County region. We are currently recruiting community members for our Tourism Committee.”
Vance said the Graham County Chamber has designated $10,000 toward its branding project.
“We have decided to revamp our online presence starting with our website to better sell the strengths of our area and communities,” Antonson said. “This also means improving our SEO (search engine optimization) so we show up on the first page of results when people search key words related to the assets of Greenlee County. This effort is in progress. We also have many tourist guides and brochures that are distributed to visitors centers around the state and region.”
Antonson said the funds the Greenlee Tourism Council received via grants have all been used and that “additional fund-raisers are in planning, and we may have to seek grant money in the next year as we will need to issue a new visitor guide and new tourist brochures in the near future.”
Both agencies are targeting the same type of tourist — the “ecotourist” who wishes to spend his or her travel time outdoors doing things such as camping, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, etc.
“Our next focus is on the amazing local food we have in our area. The Salsa Trail restaurants, the Cottage Bakery, Carter’s Custom Cuts, Cakes with TLC, local pecans, Angle’s Orchard, etc. Part of that effort is to collaborate with leaders in the local food system to create a consistent, high-quality farmers market. We hope the ethics of our ecotourists will blend nicely with agritourism and gastronomic tourists,” Bryce said.
As to partnering with other agencies — including the two counties working jointly — Antonson said, “We have just started communicating with Vance and the Graham County Chamber, and we would like to join forces when possible to promote this region as a whole. Something like the Salsa Trail might be a good platform to get the ball rolling. We have also been working some with Local First Arizona (the company that built a community profile for Greenlee), Arizona Office of Tourism, the Arizona Community Foundation and the United Way, but we need to increase involvement with these organizations.”
“We have an application in with the Arizona Office of Tourism’s Rural Co-Op program to fund some of our efforts,” Bryce said. “We are in the early stages of partnering with regional tourism offices on taking a joint approach. (Recently, he drove) to Sierra Vista to present our plan to representatives from Sierra Vista, Benson, Tombstone, Bisbee and Cananea, Sonora, Mexico.
“During my first week on the job, Leslie Ray, the manager at Clifton’s beautiful visitors center, invited me to Clifton to talk about collaborating on a co-op application with the Office of Tourism. When we get our brand ready, we will be working with them on exciting new marketing campaigns.”