Ah. The good old days.

You, know, like last year.

The Arizona Department of Tourism just issued glowing figures on Arizona’s booming tourist industry — the mainstay of Gila County.

Statewide, we were setting records — 194,000 jobs, $3.8 billion in tax revenue, lots of cash sloshing through rural economies catering to the ebb and flow of flatlanders.

Ah. Simpler times. Just last year.

The statistics from 2019 captured a booming economy, especially with spending on travel, outdoor recreation and tourism — back before the lockdowns and the stay-at-home orders and the canceled parades and the spaced out tables in the restaurants.

Gila County set a whole series of records, ranking near the top in spending and employment increases

Tourism in Gila County supported 3,000 jobs — roughly 14% of the jobs in the county.

Moreover, the number of tourism jobs increased 2.2% — roughly double the statewide average. In many other rural counties, while tourist spending went up, the jobs that spending supported went down.

Overall, visitors to Gila County in 2019 spent $321 million, a whopping 8% increase over the year before.

Shudder to think what the 2020 statistics will look like, with COVID-19 peaking for a second time with no end in sight. The Arizona Office of Tourism has announced a “recovery” plan for the industry, with advice for each city and county on how to climb back on their touristy feet — but right now the hotels and restaurants are mostly just trying to survive to next month.

So let us linger on the 2019 numbers — with record-breaking peaks in the number of visitors and how much they spent, according to the Arizona Office of Tourism.

Some 47 million people stayed overnight on a trip statewide, a 3% increase over 2018. Better yet, they spent 5% more than the year before.

The flood of visitors spent $26 billion, pumping $70 million a day into the economies of 90 towns and communities. All that spending supported 194,000 jobs directly and 361,000 support jobs.

Add up the amount of tax money generated and it works out to $1,400 for every Arizona household.

“We’re proud to recognize the efforts of so many across Arizona’s travel industry, which resulted in these record-breaking benchmarks,” said Debbie Johnson, director of the Arizona Office of Tourism. “While we’re very focused on the recovery of our industry during the next year, this 2019 data helps reinforce the critical role a strong tourism industry plays in Arizona’s economic re-energization.”

Statewide, spending rose 5% but the jobs supported rose just 1%.

Don’t expect such a glowing report next year, with COVID-19 all but eliminating international tourism and hotels, restaurants and other mainstays of the tourist economy suffer major losses in revenue — even when they’re still open.

The U.S. Department of Labor recorded a 15% decrease in Arizona’s “leisure and hospitality” jobs as of June, the hardest hit sector in the entire economy.

Just when the state finally eased the two-month long stay-at-home order, a bone-dry spring and several big wildfires prompted the Forest Service to shut down the Tonto National Forest.

Even as the monsoon arrived, a new surge in COVID-19 cases hung over the travel and tourism industry statewide.

Still, if things ever get back to normal — the 2019 figures dovetail with Gila County’s economic development plans, which stress both tourism and luring people up north for telecommuting careers in the new age of Zoom business meetings.

So the 2019 tourism figures show we’re right on track.

Well, at least we were.

Back in the good old days.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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