Both delicately and bluntly, New Mexico tells visitors to stay away

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A sign along a highway in New Mexico informs visitors they must quarantine.
A sign along a highway in New Mexico informs visitors they must quarantine. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing

SANTA FE, N.M. -- The letters, placed as full-page ads in newspapers across Texas and Arizona, were cleverly done, thanking perennial visitors to key New Mexico tourism markets for their loyal support, while ever so politely encouraging them to stay away.

“Our travel quarantine makes it difficult to visit right now, and we miss you,” it says. “We can’t wait to see you when the world is safe again.” 

But the letter/ad, in acknowledgement that they may come anyway, also urges readers to become familiar with, and follow, local rules, including social distancing and wearing a mask. 

“We realize it’s not the most comfortable thing to ask a neighbor. But we’re in this together,” it concludes above the signature, “The Land of Enchantment.”

Letters to the editor in local New Mexico papers, however, haven’t been quite so nice.

“I propose we close our borders to all adjacent states and employ the Border Patrol to administer two tests,” read one letter in the Santa Fe New Mexican. “This is a far better use of their skills than chasing immigrants. The first test will screen everyone for virus symptoms, contacts and travel history. The second will test whether someone has the capacity for critical thinking. That person will most likely wear a mask.

“Otherwise we may be overrun by the stupid or ignorant. Take your pick.”

While New Mexico’s mountain towns have long had a love-hate relationship with Texans and residents of other border states who flood in during peak ski and summer tourist seasons, unease here over the spike in Covid-19 cases in Texas and Arizona -- which have had much less stringent lockdowns -- underscores the fine line states and countries around the world face in balancing health and safety with a tourism economy.

In Taos, a smaller tourism haven north of Santa Fe, outright hostility has blossomed at times, with locals seen cursing cars with out-of-state plates and clashes erupting between shopkeepers trying to enforce the state’s mask rules and visitors refusing to wear them.

Similar tensions have been stirring in Colorado mountain towns, where according to local news reports, residents have been complaining about people with out-of-state plates refusing to wear masks.

Heather Julie Gibson, associate director of the University of Florida’s department of tourism, hospitality and event management, said the backlash against tourism is something she has seen spreading around the world since the outbreak. 

And as people turn to driving vacations, vacation rentals and RVs, “they are heading into the smaller, more remote regions, because again they really feel safer there. For the residents of these rural areas, it really is a plus and minus. Because on the one hand, if you are a tourism-centric village, you are welcoming the money, but you are not going to be welcoming the rest.”

That has prompted what she refers to as “demarketing campaigns” like those launched in New Mexico asking visitors not to come.

Cyclists circle a largely empty plaza in Santa Fe, which normally is bustling with tourists in the summer.
Cyclists circle a largely empty plaza in Santa Fe, which normally is bustling with tourists in the summer.

New Mexico tourism secretary Jen Paul Schroer said the campaign was part of the state’s “NM Safe Promise” effort launched to help tourism business respond to the pandemic with health and safety guidelines, certifications and training to help not only implement those protocols but also to help employees defuse tensions over things such as mask requirements.

The tourism industry was on board with the campaign and the ads, said Randy Randall, executive director of Tourism Santa Fe. But he and many hoteliers feel the state went too far just before the Fourth of July when, in response to a spike in cases that followed its reopening, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham extended the state quarantine rule for people flying in to those driving in.

As part of her order, she asked hotels to “inform and educate” guests about the new rules. Hotels said they are informing people before arrival and again on check-in of the rules. As a result, hoteliers across Santa Fe said, bookings dropped from the current maximum allowable 50% to as low as 10%.

The new orders, Randall said, “put an obligation on hotels that goes beyond where it should be.”

“We’ve got a great reputation for being safe. But now we are adding a bit of unfriendliness on top of that. I think we will definitely see negative responses to this.

“If we lose the summer and fall, I don’t know how some of these hotels are going to make it.”

Indeed, the impact of New Mexico’s tough rules -- and the pandemic itself -- was clear on a recent day in Santa Fe. While many of the cars parked downtown had out-of-state plates, the plaza that normally would be buzzing with visitors any given summer day was nearly empty.

Schroer said Lujan Grisham made “the tough call. ... We are a predominantly drive market when it comes to travel and tourism, and this was a necessary step to minimize the spread.”

“I don’t think anyone is thrilled with anything that is going on right now,” Schroer said. “This pandemic is not anybody’s fault. Our state government is taking a very disciplined approach, putting people first in making really tough decisions to keep our health system intact.”

And while Randall argued there is no evidence to link the rise in cases to visitors, others, such as Taos mayor Dan Barrone, support the move.

“It is worrying,” Barrone said. “I don’t want there to be conflicts between visitors and people from our community. But for right now, we need to let them know we are kind of closing up shop, and if they are going to visit they need to abide by the laws of our state.”

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