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Pima County to spend $1 million in COVID relief grants to promote tourism recovery

About $1 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds will help promote Tucson tourist attractions after the Pima County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved two grants on Tuesday for Visit Tucson and the Tucson City of Gastronomy. The county hopes to bring tourists back to the region two years after the start of the pandemic with an ad campaign and event centered on Tucson's UNESCO designation. 

The board awarded Visit Tucson a $750,000 grant, with about $680,000 budgeted for social media, according to county documents. The biggest portion of the grant is $300,000 that will go towards Orange142, a digital ad agency. There’s also $380,000 budgeted for ads in AAA and Conde Nast publications and with the Weather Channel, Priceline.com and Tripadvisor. Most of the advertising will be online.

The Tucson City of Gastronomy, a nonprofit set up to manage the UNESCO designation that recognized the region's cultural heritage and connections with agriculture and food, was awarded $250,000 but has less budgeted for marketing. They’re expected to spend $153,000 to contract outside services, including a consultant to help decide how the COVID relief can be legally spent.

The grant will also fund the inaugural Pueblos del Maíz Fiesta, which the county is touting as “a (month-long) bilingual celebration of the history and culture of maize cultivation in Southern Arizona.” The festival is slated to include street food, cooking demonstrations, film screenings and live music, and is planned to happen in coordination with events in three other internationally designated cities of gastronomy in North America.

The new annual event and the advertising campaign will “amplify the benefits of the UNESCO designation for our tourism and hospitality sectors," said Jonathan Mabry, executive director of Tucson City of Gastronomy.

The county is relying on the UNESCO designation to spur a recovery of the tourism industry in Pima County and Southern Arizona. Shut-downs in 2020 resulted in a 60 percent reduction of the revenue that the county usually collects from tourism to the region. Director of County Attractions and Tourism Diane Frisch said “the pandemic was devastating for so many of our local restaurants and food businesses, which represent a large part of our culinary identity and attraction to visitors.”

“Since Tucson was named the first UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in the U.S., we have experienced significant local, national and international media attention, all helping grow our local economy through increased bed tax revenue and growing food-related businesses and the industry as a whole,” Frisch said. “The development and promotion of new, successful events will be critical to the local industry’s recovery.”

The UNESCO Creative Cities Network named Tucson a City of Gastronomy in 2015 and has since added San Antonio, the only other U.S. city. The title recognizes unique food cultures with long histories and has distinguished 36 cities around the world in countries like China, Brazil, Italy, South Africa, Iran and Australia.

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The advertising campaign will target nearby cities where Tucson already gets most of its travelers during the peak season and cities that have non-stop routes to Tucson International Airport. It’s expected to promote Tucson's “mild climates, wide open spaces, gastronomy, outdoor adventure recreation, dining and lodging deals,” according to the county.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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