As one of the largest economic drivers, tourism has helped to shape Arizona’s culture and lifestyle long before it even became a state in 1912.
The Arizona Office of Tourism won’t be releasing 2010s tourism economic impact numbers until July, but in 2009, more than 35 million visitors spent $16.6 billion in Arizona. In addition, the industry generates an estimated $2.4 billion in local, state and federal tax revenues.
To trace the beginning of this industry’s roots, you must go back to the late 1800s, when the railroad finally crossed Arizona (it crossed Southern Arizona in 1881 and Northern Arizona in 1883). Jim Turner, historian and author of “Arizona: Celebration of the Grand Canyon State,” says that during this time, the Fred Harvey Company and Santa Fe Railway began marketing tours of Pueblo Indian villages in New Mexico and the Hopi villages in Arizona. Harvey’s stamp on Arizona is still evident today, most notably at the Grand Canyon with the continued operation of his El Tovar Hotel, which opened in 1905.
The Grand Canyon Hotel in Williams was also popular during this time, because for several years it was the closest hotel to the Grand Canyon at 65 miles away. Built in 1891, the hotel is considered the oldest in the state still in operation. It sat vacant for more than 30 years until 2004, when Oscar and Amy Fredrickson bought it and performed extensive renovations following decades of neglect.
“There’s such a niche for this type of business with the historic aspect of Route 66 and the hotel itself,” Fredrickson says.
The tourism market changed drastically in the 1920s. Factories began offering employees two-weeks paid time off, and with the advent of affordable cars and roads crossing the United States, such as Route 66 in 1926, more people began taking cross-country vacations. This was the start of automobile tourism in Arizona, Turner explains, with auto camps and motor hotels popping up every few miles along the entire highway.
Dude ranches also began operating throughout Arizona, especially in Wickenburg, where at the height of dude ranching popularity there were 13, says Julie Brooks, executive director of Wickenburg’s Chamber of Commerce. Today that number is down to four. Some of the closed dude ranches, she says, have reverted back to private family homes, while others have actually taken on the needs of other industries, such as the transition of Slash Bar K Ranch into The Meadows, a treatment center for addiction and trauma.
Among those dude ranches still operating is the Flying E Ranch, a 19,500-acre working ranch that transitioned into a dude ranch in 1946. In its infancy, the ranch had eight guest rooms, but that has now increased to 17 rooms, including two family houses, for a total occupancy of 34. The original guest rooms still contain their original chairs and lamps.
Many of the Flying E Ranch’s guests are repeat customers, says general manager Andrea Taylor, adding that one of the lessons she’s learned over the years is that guests don’t want anything at the ranch to change.
“I find that I can’t pull away from tradition,” she says. “People have grown to love what they have here. It’s like coming home to grandma’s house.”
The Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, which first opened in 1929, also has evolved with the ever-changing needs of tourists. Celebrities were often found at the resort. Marilyn Monroe was quoted as referring to the pool there as her favorite, and Irving Berlin wrote his famous “White Christmas” while sitting by the same pool. The resort has had several additions and renovations since then, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. One of the most recent changes came in 2009, when the Arizona Wing was renovated and renamed Ocatilla at Arizona Biltmore. This “hotel within a hotel” offers even more amenities and elite service for those looking for the ultimate in a pampered vacation.
Tourism died down during World War II, Turner says, as everyone was involved in the war effort. But after the war, thanks to savings bonds and the GI Bill, people could afford to travel again. For the next several decades, motor hotels continued to thrive, but the fascination with the Western lifestyle slowly dissipated as destination tourism rose. Picking up in the 1970s and strengthening even today, tourists now seek the ultimate destination vacation experience, especially in areas that promote golf and spas, Turner says.
As the needs and wants of travelers evolved, hotels throughout the state also changed to accommodate them. The Westward Look Resort in Tucson, which was originally built as a family home in 1912, transitioned into a guest ranch in the 1920s, and evolved once again in the 1960s, when it became Tucson’s first resort. Today, in addition to deluxe accommodations and luxurious spa activities, the resort also encourages guests to engage in recreational tourism through its nature programs, which include horseback riding and hiking trails.
A more recent example of the continuing evolution of hotels is The Wigwam in Litchfield Park. The Wigwam’s identity has altered several times during its history. Originally built as an organizational house for Goodyear Tire and Rubber executives in 1918, it became a dude ranch in 1929, and as with The Westward Look Resort, it later added more deluxe amenities including golf and spa activities. The Wigwam just completed a $7 million renovation in January, a process that was necessary to not only stay current with today’s tourists, but also to prepare for the next generation.
“The Wigwam has been here for almost 100 years because it’s always been the type of property that adapted to different generations and different travelers and how those needs are ever changing,” says Frank Ashmore, director of sales and marketing at The Wigwam.
Sedona has always been a popular city for tourists, as well, due to its red mountain scenery. But in the late 1980s, it became even more well known when it was decided that Sedona had more metaphysical spiritual centers than anywhere else in the world, Turner says. Suddenly people were flocking to Sedona to discern this phenomena for themselves. This continues to be a draw for tourists today and many books can be found on the subject.
Business tourism also has had a large impact on Arizona, especially in the Greater Phoenix area. George Munz, general manager at the Ritz-Carlton, Phoenix, says 85 percent of the hotel’s guests are staying in town for business. The needs of business travelers, he says, are different from leisure travelers, especially in terms of speed and efficiency. And business tourism, Munz adds, helps boost leisure tourism as well.
“While (a guest) may come to my hotel for business, they may come back and go to the Royal Palms or Camelback Inn or The Phoenician,” Munz explains.
Even sports have played a part in Arizona’s tourism growth. While MLB spring training camps can be found throughout Greater Phoenix, the impact of sports tourism is probably most apparent in Glendale. After the opening of Westgate City Center, Jobing.com Arena and the University of Phoenix stadium, the number of Glendale’s hotels doubled and its occupancy more than tripled, says Lorraine Pino, tourism manager at the Glendale Convention and Visitors Bureau.
It was thanks in part to this sports surge that Glendale took the steps necessary to change its tourism office into an official CVB.
“Our tourism literally exploded over the past few years and with that we really needed to have that official designation,” Pino says.
Tourism in the entire West Valley will get to reap the benefits of the Glendale CVB, as Pino and her team will now work to promote all 13 cities in the region.
Debbie Johnson, president and CEO of the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association, says that the efforts of hotels and tourism leaders throughout Arizona has helped mold the state into what it is today and where it will go in the future.
“Arizona wouldn’t be where we are today if we didn’t have the tourism industry we have,” she says. “I really believe (tourism) is what makes Arizona so special.”