Rio Grande Valley Ponders Tourism Drop
A tough economy that has shrunk retirement nest eggs has helped cut the number of snowbirds in the Rio Grande Valley this year, Winter Texans said Monday.
Meanwhile, younger retirees in northern states are not spending their golden years on RVs bound for the Sunbelt, they said.
Managers at Park Place Estates RV Resort in Harlingen and First Colony Mobile and RV Park in San Benito said occupancy is down nearly 50% during the winter’s peak months, according to The Coastal Current.
“We’re down all the way around compared to other years,” First Colony’s manager Sally Richardson said about the park where 75 of 149 sites are occupied. “I think other parks are in the same boat. We’re not doing the business this year as we did in the past.”
Researchers at the University of Texas-Pan American are asking Winter Texans to take a new online survey to determine why a newly released bi-annual study shows numbers dropped from a record of 144,000 in 2009-10 to 133,000 in 2011-12. Click here to view the survey.
But the researchers also want to know why younger retirees are not coming here, Penny Simpson, director of the university’s Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center, said.
“The big question is the Baby Boomers and why they’re not traveling or wintering like their parents,” Simpson said.
As the number of Winter Texans dropped, Simpson said, so did their buying power, falling from $803 million in 2009-10 to $751 million in 2011-12.
It’s the first time the university is asking Winter Texans to participate in an online survey, she said.
“It’s designed to find out what they think about the Valley and their park, specifically,” Simpson said. “We want to know what they like in the parks and how we can make changes at the parks to make sure we’re accommodating the needs and wants of the current and future Winter Texans.”
Winter Texans are aging and younger retirees are not replacing them, Simpson said.
The university’s new study shows Winter Texans’ average age has continued to climb, reaching 71.2 years last year, Simpson said.
Winter Texans’ Comments
The drop in occupancy numbers is big news at Valley parks, Winter Texans said.
“You look at some parks and you see quite a few empty lots, which were full when we first came down,” said Regina McInervey, a retired economic development officer from Mokena, Ill., who has wintered at Bit-O-Heaven RV and Mobile Home Park in Donna since 2004.
“I think people are dying off and the younger ones don’t seem to be coming down because they’re working longer,” McInervey said.
Jan Stumbo, a retired print shop worker from Boone, Iowa, said many retirees are not returning to the Valley because they lost much of their retirement nest eggs during the recession.
“My parents came down here and that’s one reason we’re down here,” said Stumbo, who has wintered at Park Place since 2010. “But my son says, ‘I’ll never retire at 65. I’ll work til I’m 75.’”
The Valley’s RV parks offer good amenities and plenty of activities to at-tract retirees to the area, Stumbo said.
“There’s more than enough to do around here,” she said.
But Doris Croasmun said younger retirees stay away from traditional park activities like arts and crafts workshops.
“The younger people seem to be more into going places and seeing things like concerts,” said Croasmun, a housewife from Struthers, Ohio, who has wintered at Park Place since 1995. “They don’t learn crafts from their parents and grandparents. They haven’t picked up on a lot of things we enjoy doing.”
Attendance dropped from 1,800 last year to 2,000 at the Rio Grande Valley Wood Carvers Show in San Juan last month, said Barbara Humphrey, a registered nurse from Illinois who first came to the Valley in 1997.
Humphrey said younger retirees are not spending their winters in RVs.
“The Baby Boomers are afraid to get out and adventure because they don’t have the money,” said Humphrey, another winter resident at Bit-O-Heaven. “They’re used to everything being upscale and high-tech so they stay home.”
The fear of Mexico’s drug violence spilling into the Valley may have kept other retirees away this year, Humphrey said.
“I’m scared to go to Mexico now,” she said. “People might be scared of the Valley.”
High gas prices may have contributed to keeping some retirees home this year, Bruce Nordin, a retired paper factory worker, said. Nordin, who spends the winter at Park Place Estates, said it costs him about $2,400 to drive his RV to and from Cloquet, Minn.
“Times are tough up north — tougher than they are here,” Nordin said as he worked on a wood carving at Park Place’s recreation building.
McInervey said Valley tourism officials should put more marketing dollars in RV trade magazines to attract more retirees from northern states.
“I haven’t seen the ads from here,” McInervey said. “I think the Valley really should advertise. (The cost of living) is so reasonable down here.”
Simpson said budget cuts may have led to a reduction in advertizing aimed at northern markets.
Courtney Junkin, events coordinator at the Harlingen Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the agency advertises in northern markets to attract the next generation of retirees.
She referred further questions to agency Marketing Director Sonny Martinez, who was out of the office and unavailable for comment Monday, she said.