By Nick Worth
When the gates of the Grand Canyon closed on Oct. 1, the assumption was that it meant doom for tourist related businesses in northern Arizona. Ironically, though, the shutdown of Arizona’s premier national park actually helped many businesses along the Interstate 40 corridor and in other areas of the northern part of the state.
“I don’t know how people can say their business is down,” said Bob Hall of the Winslow Chamber of Commerce. “Every hotel room was packed in Sedona and at Homolovi there have been record numbers of RVers.
“Winslow’s motels were also full. Flagstaff as well,” said Hall. “Our tourism is up. We’ve been so busy here with people looking for things to do.”
Hall said he felt bad about the millions of dollars being lost at the Grand Canyon, but the government shutdown of the park has meant good business for the rest of northern Arizona.
“There’s no doubt we’ve been seeing more people in our visitor’s center than we’ve ever seen before,” Hall said.
“These people are still traveling and since the Grand Canyon is closed, they’re seeking other things to see and do.”
Hall said he has spoken with several visitors over the first two weeks of the shutdown.
He said that even though many travelers were disappointed at not being able to see the Grand Canyon, their vacations were planned and they were not going to turn back and give them up.
“They haven’t been totally disappointed because they found other things to do,” Hall said. “They would not have gone to see state parks and other attractions throughout northern Arizona if the canyon were open.
“At Homolovi their RV campground was booked to capacity,” he continued. “At Meteor Crater, they were packed at the campground there.”
Hall said the closure of the canyon has actually helped some of the smaller communities in the area, but he noted there were undoubtedly some exceptions.
“Williams was probably hurt because of the Grand Canyon Railway,” Hall noted.
“Yes, the Grand Canyon lost money, no doubt, but our border communities picked up the slack and benefitted throughout Northern Arizona.”
He noted that there were other alternatives for the travelers who were shut out of the canyon.
“Many of them ended up getting a Route 66 experience,” Hall said. He said that may have helped Williams.
“Williams is certainly a great place to experience Route 66, as is Winslow,” Hall said. He noted that Sedona businesses did good business during the shutdown.
“Sedona always has a lot of tourism, but they were packed in the hotel rooms there.”
According to Hall, many travelers reported an initial sense of disappointment in not being able to go to the canyon, but ended up having a fun vacation because they saw a lot of other sights they didn’t know about.
“A woman from South Africa came in and was quite disappointed,” Hall said. “I suggested a visit to the west end of the canyon and showed her the brochure for Grand Canyon West.”
Hall said the woman called back and told him what a wonderful time she’d had at the other location.
“All that being said, I still wish the government would get their act together,” said Hall. “The Grand Canyon is the biggest tourist attraction in the world. They need to open.”
Randy Stanley at the Holbrook Visitor’s Center in the historic courthouse echoed Hall’s comments.
“The visitors don’t have any place to go, so they come here to find out where to go,” Stanley said. Looking through his records, Stanley said he normally gets 25 to 30 visitors per day during this time of year.
“It’s gone through the roof,” he said. “I would say I’ve seen at least a 65 percent increase in visitors since the shutdown.”
Stanley said he was answering questions from as many as 100 people per day for the first three days of the shutdown and around 70 per day in the ensuing days.
“I gave out over 250 books on the state parks,” said Stanley. “I also gave out at least that many brochures telling about Window Rock, Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Nation, and points of interest on the Hopi Reservation, as well.”
Stanley also coordinated with Kathleen Smith, executive director of the Holbrook Chamber of Commerce, to print out a one-page flyer listing sites to see in and around Holbrook, including Rock Art Ranch, Hidden Cove Park and Golf Course, Bucket of Blood Street and local photo ops, including the Wigwam Motel, Globetrotter Lodge, the dinosaurs and the various murals found throughout the town.
Visitors at the center dropped back down to 30 last Sunday upon the state-funded reopening of the Grand Canyon the previous day. But while the re-opening of the main attraction again diverted some tourists from the local sites, there is still a longing for a complete reopening of all the national parks.
“I’ve had 25 people in here today wanting to know when the Petrified Forest would open,” Stanley said. He said the shutdown of the parks will have a lasting effect on the area and the country.
“Tourists from abroad say they’ll never come back,” Stanley said. “Some of them saved for eight to 10 years, or more to come here.”
He told of a woman from Germany who said she and her husband had saved for 18 years to come to the United States and tour the national parks in the Southwest.
“They flew into Las Vegas, rented a car and drove to the Grand Canyon, and found it was closed,” said Stanley. “She stood here with tears in her eyes. They said they’ll never come back.
“I have to sit here and console people because of what this government has done,” Stanley said.
At the Holbrook Chamber of Commerce, Smith said the effects of the shutdown were definitely felt, especially in the beginning.
“We had a lot of unhappy tourists the first week,” Smith said. She said one local motel reported 10 cancellations the night of Oct. 1 and another four the following day.
However Clifton Lewis, owner of the historic Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, said the shutdown had no real effect on his business.
“We had a couple of cancellations at first, but we’ve been fully booked,” Lewis said. “We haven’t had any overages, but we’ve been booked.”
Chris Martinez at the Days Inn in Holbrook had a similar story.
“There are a lot of disappointed people because it’s closed,” Martinez said, speaking of the Petrified Forest. “We’ve had a few cancellations, but it’s hard to gauge because most of our guests are walk-ins from I-40.
“They go to see the Petrified Forest and then stop in here at the end of the day,” she said.
Smith said she did not yet have any data on the overall effects of the shutdown and that it may take a while to actually assess the damage, or gains, if there were any.
Though the U.S. Senate had reportedly reached a deal to end the shutdown, at press time Wednesday there was still no word on whether that would be accepted by the House of Representatives. Gov. Jan Brewer authorized state funding for an additional nine days Wednesday to keep Grand Canyon National Park open if the shutdown continues.
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By Nick Worth