|MISSION, August 1 - The number of Winter Texans visiting the Rio Grande Valley has dropped alarmingly, a UT-Pan American study has found.
In four years, the number of “snowbirds” that make the region their winter home has dropped from 144,000 to 100,000. This has resulted in a loss of $93 million to the Valley’s economy.
“The number of Winter Texans coming to the Rio Grande Valley is down substantially compared to prior years. It is a worrying trend,” said Dr. Penny Simpson, a professor of marketing at UTPA and director of the university’s Business and Tourism Research Center. Simpson said she hopes the Valley’s chambers of commerce use her group’s study as a wake-up call. “If we do not go out and market this area actively then we will continue to see a decline of this industry,” she said.
In 2013-14, approximately 100,000 “snowbirds” made the Valley their winter home, down from the 133,000 that visited in 2011-12. This resulted in less money being spent in the local economy. In 2013-14, the value of the Winter Texan business was $710 million, down from the $751 million spent in 2011-12.
This is the second successive reporting period that UTPA’s Business and Tourism Research Center has found a decrease in Winter Texan visits. In 2009-10, a record 144,000 Winter Texans visited the Valley, spending $803 million in the local economy.
Asked why fewer Winter Texans are visiting the Valley, Simpson said it is hard to say because she and her team are only getting responses from those that come to the Valley.
“I study the people who are here, not the people who do not come here. Those that come seem to love it here. They come for the climate, the friendly people here; the social activities. They like to socialize, eat out and shop,” Simpson said.
“What we have seen is that the average age of the Winter Texans is increasing and they are coming for longer. But, new people are not coming. The chambers of commerce that used to market the region have not had the resources they had in previous years, so a lot of people do not know about us.”
UTPA has been studying the Winter Texan community and their impact on the local economy for many years. This year, 1,394 Winter Texans responded to questions posed in the survey, along with 88 RV and mobile home park owners and managers. They were asked questions about their age, gender, marital status, healthcare, education, income and employment. They were also asked which state they come from and where and how long they were staying in the Valley.
Asked what would cause them not to visit the Valley next year, 62.7 percent of the Winter Texans responded by saying health issues while 27.2 percent said “terrorism and/or the threat of violence.”
Asked whether negative media coverage related to the large influx of Central American children this year and Gov. Rick Perry’s decision to deploy National Guard troops in the area might also hit the Valley’s Winter Texan market, Simpson said: “It certainly is not going to help. The problem is not the people who come here. The Winter Texans who come here love it. Around 96.9 say they will come back. The reason they give for not coming back is a health reason, not violence. It is the people who do not come who might have a negative perception. Given the choice of Arizona, Florida or South Texas, what would you choose? Many potential tourists do not know we are not overrun by immigrants and that there are not cartels on every corner. They don’t know that. Let them see people biking, kayaking on the Rio Grande; staying on South Padre Island. The Rio Grande Valley is a fun place to be, without the snow.”
The UTPA report finished with this conclusion: “Taken together, results from this study suggest the substantial influence that Winter Texans have on the Valley and the Valley economy. Given this considerable influence, Valley residents business and governmental officials should continue to make Winter Texans feel welcome to the area and continue outreach efforts to ensure that younger, baby boomer Winter Texans are coming to the Valley to replace their aging predecessors. These baby boomers may have different needs and interests which should be examined in future studies and addressed to continue the trend of an ever increasing positive impact of Winter Texans on the Valley economy.”
Simpson discussed the new report with Valley marketing leaders in McAllen on Monday. Afterwards, Martha Noell, president and CEO of Weslaco Chamber of Commerce, said: “I think the first thing we must do to address the decline in Winter Texans and the changing travel patterns of baby-boomers, is to inform the business community. They are the ones that will feel the economic impact and we must partner with business to ‘re-tool’ our programs to promote the Valley as a travel destination. The Valley is a perfect destination for tourists. We have sunshine, activities, accommodations, restaurants and friendly locals. Now we all need to work together to dedicate resources to tell our story.”
At a recent roundtable discussion about border security and the influx of Central American children hosted by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar at Mission City Hall, Kathy Olivarez, editor of Winter Texan Times, sounded an alarm bell about Winter Texans visiting the Valley. She said many are concerned about negative stories they are hearing about the region in the national media.
“We are getting calls from our Winter Texan readers asking if it is safe to come back down here next winter. They are asking if all these undocumented kids are roaming the streets, committing robberies and stuff,” Olivarez told the Guardian, after the roundtable discussion had ended.
“The perception is that it is really bad, really dangerous, down here. We have had people like Sean Hannity say there is chaos on the border. If we are not careful, we are going to see the No. 1 industry in Hidalgo County and the Valley, which is the tourism industry, destroyed. We have got to dispel the notion that people are roaming wild down here.”
Olivarez said RV and mobile home park owners and managers are also calling her newspaper to say they are getting calls from anxious Winter Texans. “We are getting calls from park owners saying they are getting a lot of calls and can we do something about it. People are trying to decide if they want to come to the Valley this winter. We do not want our economy destroyed by this situation.”
Mission Mayor Norberto Salinas said Winter Texan business is a top priority for his city, better even than visits by wealthy Mexican shoppers and investors. Salinas said he is not too worried about the negative coverage, not yet at least. “I think there is still time to get the word out that we are a safe place to live and visit and stay. We can get this message out through our Chamber of Commerce. We know how to reach our Winter Texans,” Salinas said. “We have 30,000 Winter Texans and for me they are No. 1.”
To read the UTPA report, 'Winter Texan 2013-2014 Survey,' go to this website: http://portal.utpa.edu/utpa_main/daa_home/coba_new_home/coba_faculty/faculty_centers/tourism