Monday, November 7, 2011

The Curious Thing About New Mexico’s “Image Problem”

Barren. Arid. Boring. Like Mars.

Recently, the New Mexico Department of Tourism conducted focus groups in Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago to find out what people thought about New Mexico. These phrases above were some of the results. Worse, some people said they had no impressions of the state whatsoever, while others thought there were beaches here. To really twist the knife, Colorado and Arizona – two adjacent states tested for comparison – came out better on almost every measure tested, even skiing.

Arizona is better for skiing than New Mexico? Really? Listening to a public radio news report on these focus group results, I had to shake my head with befuddlement. I mean, New Mexico has eight ski resorts compared to Arizona’s four, and it has Taos Ski Valley, a highly respected top ski destination. Are people just that clueless about New Mexico? The answer is yes. There’s a reason, after all, that New Mexico Magazine has a monthly humor column sharing anecdotes about people, businesses and websites who apparently don’t know New Mexico is a US state.

I wasn’t completely unaware of New Mexico’s strangely poor reputation before moving, however. Albuquerque in particular drew raised eyebrows among people we knew, with two people reporting that they thought it was a “s*%#hole.” Then there was the poll I conducted on this blog, in which 66% of my dear readers let me know that relocating to New Mexico was “insane.” Part of that may have stemmed from the giant leap we took to moving to a state where we knew absolutely no one, but I also suspect the state’s “image problem” could have played a role.

Yet here’s where this all gets squirrelly. Clearly, people ARE visiting New Mexico, given that tourism is a $5.5 billion dollar industry (the second largest in the state). And people HAVE heard of Santa Fe. In a very favorable light. I mean, just consider all the perennial accolades that Santa Fe – the state’s 400-year-old cultural and literal capital as well as a UNESCO-designated “Creative City” – receives from top travel publications and websites. Here’s a roundup of some of Santa Fe’s 2011 honors alone:

*See my Christmas Eve in Santa Fe blog; **Believe it or not, Santa Fe beat out cities like Chicago, Honolulu, New York, Savannah, Seattle and Boston in this poll.

Then there’s the fact that the New York Times certainly considers New Mexico a worthy destination to cover at least once a year, with a recent 36 Hours in Albuquerque piece (yes, Albuquerque!) as well as past features like The Art of Being Santa Fe and The Thrifty Wintry Charms of Santa Fe. I’ve also seen recent features on New Mexico in countless other publications – to the point that I am constantly thinking I need to get into the travel writing game.

So I ask, where is this poor or vague reputation coming from? Clearly, it’s not from the travel media, which treats Santa Fe like its darling. But maybe the real question is, is it really a "problem" that New Mexico is not a place people know much about? Sure, it matters to tourism revenue, but does it matter to me? After all, one of the things I love best about my new state is that fact that I only have to share it with two million other people – less than a quarter of the amount of people I had to co-exist with in Los Angeles. Its “off the radar” status keeps the winds of mass migration at bay and makes our tourists especially cool people who look deeper into things.

It also makes it a ball hosting first-time visitors to the state – who are by far the majority of our visitors – and introducing them to a landscape unlike anything most have ever seen. It is just so different here, and entirely unlike Phoenix or any other “low elevation desert” destination. (Our house is at 6,800 feet, after all.) I’d like to think our visitors (more than a dozen and counting, which makes us very blessed in the open-minded friends department) take back positive impressions that get circulated and work against the grain.

Or maybe they shouldn’t say anything, and we’ll just keep it our little secret.

1 comment:

santafetraveler said...

Those survey results really puzzled me- it's as if those focus groups were found under rocks. Doesn't like they were made up of travel savvy people.