COMMENTARY: Downturn in tourists hurting McAllen’s economy — How citizens can help

BY NANCY S. MILLAR

Tourism has been taking a licking lately in Texas, in the Valley, and in McAllen.

Visitors bring in billions of dollars to the city’s economy every year, and sustain tens of thousands of jobs. Tourism is a very large and important part of McAllen’s thriving economy. So when we see any segment of our economic profile in trouble, especially one as large as this, we should all be concerned.

The downturn in visitors has an impact on local businesses, but it also impacts McAllen’s city government. Much of the city’s operating budget comes from sales and hotel tax collected from visitors, so when sales are down, taxes are also. This can cause a pullback in city services that we all tend to take for granted.

In McAllen, it’s common knowledge that Mexico’s violence has affected retail sales, hotel occupancy, and bridge crossings, all key indicators of our thriving economy. Mexico has traditionally contributed about one-third of McAllen’s retail business, so when that’s off target, we are bound to feel it. McAllen also is feeling effects from border wall talks, the peso devaluation, the threat of SB4, and the continued misperceptions about the safety of the Rio Grande Valley. It’s easy to see why tourism is down.

While we recognize that many of these situations are well outside the scope of what McAllen or the Valley can remedy, we also know that there are tactics to help overcome these obstacles. The city, McAllen Economic Development Corporation, and McAllen Chamber of Commerce are meeting these challenges head-on with strategic programs.

By working together these entities are advertising and marketing more effectively. All three have committed funds to mitigate the visitor downturn, and are leveraging partnerships with businesses, city departments and surrounding communities. Many of these marketing and advertising efforts local residents aren’t likely to see or hear since they target other regions of Texas, the United States and Mexico. But they are happening, and have been ramped up. This year these various organizations will have spent over $1 million to promote the City of McAllen.

This includes advertising in traditional and digital media outlets, integrated communications and marketing programs, and carefully targeted, strategic presentation of messages. The McAllen Chamber of Commerce’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, the City’s Destination Marketing Organization (DMO), is managing the program.

A big push has been the campaign “Amigos Always,” a three-pronged approach to the problem of receding business.

The first portion is telling out story in Mexico. It is important for Mexican residents to know that nothing has changed in McAllen. We still welcome our southern neighbors with open arms. Our close ties with Northern Mexico, going far beyond wanting their shopping dollars, demonstrates our symbiotic relationship and encompasses a shared culture, history, roots.

The second part of the campaign is educating local residents on the importance of continuing our welcoming tradition. McAllen is known for our warm hospitality, and now, more than ever, it is important to reach out to visitors and ensure that they know we appreciate them.

Finally, in order to diversify our visitor base, we are also promoting to communities in South Texas whose residents are close enough to visit easily by car. By building up this other drive market, McAllen can buffer itself against the current and any future Mexican visitor downturns.

The local business community has been supportive of these efforts and several partnerships have been instituted with local businesses by the McAllen Chamber. This has extended McAllen’s abilities to promote even further.

McAllen is now more visible than ever before to convention and sporting event planners, leisure tourists, and Mexican Nationals. But McAllen needs even more. We need help from residents. If you are a member of an organization — a sports club, service group, professional or religious association — consider asking that group to hold a meeting, convention or event in McAllen. Each meeting or convention attendee spends an average of $170 per day, so even a small group of only 50 or 75 people, staying just two nights, can make a difference. Please contact the McAllen Chamber of Commerce to help set this up at (956) 682-2871.

Bringing people into town gives us all a chance to show off our beautiful city, which is full of excellent restaurants, hotels, stores, and attractions. Most importantly, McAllen is filled with resourceful, resilient people who deserve our combined support to make McAllen as prosperous a hometown as we possibly can.