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Tourism blues

Rob Sabo

By any standard statistical as well as anecdotal 2008 has been a stay-at-home summer for the tourists who fuel a portion of the economy of Greater Reno-Tahoe.

High costs of gasoline and airfare have contributed to steep drops from 2007 in tourism and gaming numbers in Washoe County.

Brian Kulpin, director of marketing and public affairs for the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, says the number of airline passengers dipped about 8 percent for the year, but the airport suffered a 12 percent decline in April, May and June. For the year, 157,000 fewer passengers have passed through RTIA than a year ago.

About 7,100 fewer cars came into Nevada on Interstate 80 in June through April compared with the same time a year ago, the state says.

As fewer visitors come to town, hotels and motels feel the pinch. From January through May, single-night room bookings in Washoe County fell nearly 8 percent, says the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority.

“What is going on overall in the economy nationwide is impacting travel across the country,” says Ellen Oppenheim, president and chief executive officer of the RSCVA. “People are concerned about the mortgage crisis and rising food and fuel costs. They are taking shorter vacations closer to home and being more frugal.”

Oppenheim notes the room tax generates much of the funding for marketing and promotional campaigns, as well as for repayment of debt for the National Bowling Stadium and the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.

More importantly, Oppenheim says, visitors stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, shop at stores and fuel a significant part of the job base in this region.

“They are a very healthy component to the local economy,” she says.

The decline in tourism numbers shows up in casinos as well.

The Gaming Control Board says the gaming win in June for Washoe County fell nearly 20 percent from 2007. North Lake Tahoe experienced the biggest dip at nearly 27 percent. Reno fell nearly 20 percent and Sparks dropped almost 13 percent.

The win at South Lake Tahoe fell 24 percent from a year ago.

Much of the dramatic decline in the gaming win is due to vacationers tightening their budgets and staying at home.

“While people are still traveling, larger numbers than perhaps we have seen before are staying closer to home and taking advantage of what is nearby in an effort to address the economic situation,” Oppenheim says.

Kulpin says airports across the country have experienced similar declines in passenger numbers and reduced flights. However, the drop in passengers or services wasn’t unexpected.

“We saw this coming months ago and tried to brace for it,” Kulpin says. The airport initiated a hiring freeze for all positions not related to safety and security, halted purchasing except for essential items, and laid off 14 part-time passenger aides at the start of the summer.

Kulpin says projections show that by December overall airline passengers will be down 17 percent from the same time last year.

Additionally, Kulpin says, Express Jet and Continental Airlines no longer will be flying from the airport in September, and Southwest,

Delta and U.S. Airways all have reduced flights at Reno-Tahoe International.

“Just about every airline has been impacted in some way as they tighten their belts,” he says. “Almost every airline has gone through and fine-tuned their operations. They are cutting back across the country.”

Cutbacks in travel and spending are affecting many small downtown Reno businesses, such as souvenir and gift shops, whose sales rely heavily on tourist foot traffic.

Nate Little, manager of Lucky 7 Gifts at 229 N. Virginia St., says the store did well during Hot August Nights, but sales overall are down roughly 15 percent for the summer.

“People aren’t coming in,” he says. “Gas, Indian casinos, Las Vegas it’s hard to compete with all that.”

Fay Myer, co-owner of Antiques and Treasures Downtown at 151 N. Sierra St., says sales began slumping in April, but the store also experienced an uptick during Hot August Nights.

“We did notice a difference,” she says. “Hopefully Street Vibrations and the balloon races give us a boost.”

Both stores slightly increased their hours in an effort to boost sales.

Gaming, room nights and other tourism numbers are expected to increase as northern Nevada’s special events season hits full swing. The airport expects more than 15,000 international and domestic visitors to pass through its gates for Burning Man. And in addition to long-standing tourist draws such the Nugget’s rib cookoff, the balloon races and

Street Vibrations, Oppenheim points to newer attractions such as the opening of Scheels and Legends at Sparks Marina, construction and renovations at the Atlantis and Peppermill, the Triple-A ballpark downtown, and Reno’s new NBA development league team that are expected to increase sagging tourism figures.

“There are a lot of projects under way that will enhance the visitor experience,” she says.