Rio Grande Valley Braces for Big Season
Mobile home and RV park operators in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas say all indications point to a successful year for Winter Texan visitors.
At South Padre Island, there’s been a 10 percent increase in the number of inquiries from prospective Winter Texans, Lacey Ekberg, the Convention & Visitors Bureau director, told The Monitor, McAllen. The CVB has received 5,000 to 6,000 calls per month since July, with most of those calls coming from the Midwest and northern states, including Illinois, Ohio and Minnesota.
“Given the number of inquiries, we do not expect less Winter Texan visitors than the previous year,” Ekberg said.
Some parks are able to get a hint of the coming season’s success based on previous year park residents who take advantage of “early bird” discounts, or make their reservations far in advance of their return.
Fun N Sun RV Resort in San Benito, for example, offers a rate of $75 for the month of October, park spokeswoman Janie Paz said.
Paradise Park RV Resort, in Harlingen last year offered a 5 percent “Early Bird Special” discount for some visitors who paid by June for the next winter. Other parks’ discount offers vary from year to year.
Winter Texans are big business in the Valley, injecting millions of dollars into the local economy every year. For the 2011-2012 season, Winter Texans had a $751 million direct economic impact on the Valley economy, according to statistics compiled by the Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center at the University of Texas-Pan American.
Winter Texans usually begin showing up in the Valley around Oct. 1, said Penny Simpson, a UTPA professor of marketing and associate dean of the College of Business Administration and director of the Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center.
“It’s just a trickle in October,” she said of the annual migration of retirees. “When they come is tied to the weather. The health of the retirees also determines whether they will return to the Valley each year.”
Visits by retirees from northern states and Canada dropped sharply after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, but eventually returned to nearly the levels of earlier years. A biannual survey by UTPA this January showed some drop in numbers of Winter Texans in a January count of seasonal visitors from two years ago.
Simpson said 133,400 Winter Texans came to the Valley last winter compared with 144,000 two years earlier.
Worries about terrorism incidents along the border play into the decision to return to the Valley each year, she said.
Paradise Park Mobile Home Park in Harlingen has 255 mobile home sites and 295 recreational vehicle sites, office manager Christine Henderson said.
Some Winter Texans who have visited the Valley for several winters will stay longer and some make the Valley their home base and visit their northern homes during warmer months, she said.
“We have quite a few people that are annual but stay year-round. But then we have those that are annuals but they are only here for X amount of months and then they go back home,” she said.
While some retirees claim they are no longer Winter Texans because they live in the Valley most of the year, they still go back home to visit family during the hottest months of summer, she said.
“They’re all Winter Texans to me,” she said, laughing.
In recent years, with soaring fuel prices, more retirees are choosing to leave their RVs in the Valley, Henderson said. Paradise Park has a designated storage area for RVs that are not in use.
At Sunshine RV Park in Harlingen, workers have been replacing sod and making other repairs and preparations for Winter Texans who will soon arrive.
Manager Lon Huff said Winter Texans are attracted to the Valley by the many species of birds and proudly showed a small lake at his park where black-bellied whistling ducks, swans and roseate spoonbills congregated.
Huff said his park’s numbers don’t support UTPA’s statistics of declining numbers of Winter Texans.
“The years of 2010 and 2011 for us were extremely good years,” he said.
Violence in Mexico and high gas prices have not greatly affected the numbers of people wintering at Sunshine RV Park, Huff said.
Baby boomers are an increasing presence in the Winter Texan community, Huff said, adding that there’s a “pretty big” contingent of 55-year-old Canadians at his park.
The number of retirees who stay for six months each winter has been increasing each year he has worked at Sunshine RV Park, Huff said. Some owners of park models and mobile homes have added patios, storage buildings and other facilities, as evidence of their longer visits.