By John Waters, Publisher
Never a real hotbed of economic activity in the summer, south Brewster County businesses have suffered economically even more this summer; the quintuple punch of a sputtering economy, increased gasoline prices, a prolonged drought, wildfires, and tourist concerns about border security have drastically reduced tourism to this end-of-the road area.
The result, says longtime business owner Mike Long of Desert Sports, is that “the state of the economy sucks. There is no economy.”
Citing consumer apprehension over spending money, the recent fiscal debacle in Washington, D.C., and the damage to the scenery caused by the drought as causes for a lackluster summer, Long added, “One of the things to sell out here is the scenic value, and the drought has had an effect.”
Big Bend Chamber of Commerce President Ruth Staton, has a slightly different take: “One of the worst things is the media. They have scared people from visiting the border. The chamber regularly gets calls about border safety. Besides times being bad, there are scare tactics from the media.”
A bellwether indicator of the tourism economy is the hotel tax collected by the Brewster County. Based on that, an accurate estimate of gross hotel revenue can be made. According to Mike Davidson, Executive Director of the Brewster County Tourism Council, hotel revenues for the last several years are steady: hotel tax revenue was $7.3 million in 2008, $7.1 million in 2009 and $7.4 million in 2010.
Davidson added that hotel revenue has grown steadily in the last decade, with 2009 posting the only decline, by just 2.3%. By comparison, during the 2008-2010 period statewide, hotel revenue actually declined by 20%.
Big Bend National Park visitor statistics are also holding steady, with 364,000 visitors in 2008 and 374,000 in 2010. This year’s numbers through July indicate park visits will show a marginal decrease over last year, but these numbers may be a statistical anomaly, with April visits plunging to their lowest level in a decade, coincident with the onset of area wildfires.
So, if park visits are holding steady and hotel expenditures are up, where’s the money? In people’s pockets is the most likely answer. In August, the “Consumer Confidence Level” as measured by Thompson Reuters dropped to its lowest level since 1980 and, earlier this summer, the U.S. Commerce Department showed consumer spending dropping for the first time in two years.
Davidson offered the following synopsis of the picture in Brewster County: “For the last three years, we have seen an uncertain economy, increased energy costs due to unrest in the Middle East, and fear of
border violence. In May 2011, we fought the largest wildfire in Texas
history. West Texas fires made world news, and it remains to be seen whether the drop in second quarter hotel revenues is a short-term blip from
which the regional hospitality industry should bounce back quickly if there are no more fires, disasters, or public relation nightmares. Rain would help.”
With the long, dry, hot, and windy conflagration that was the summer of 2011 drawing to a close, Chamber of Commerce President Staton is upbeat: “Starting in September we get busy. We made it past the bad time.”