This season’s influx of snowbirds delivered the best numbers in years for Arizona’s Valley’s winter-visitor industry.
The snowbird season started to rebound last year, and the trend has continued as more winter visitors arrived earlier and stayed longer, according to owners of recreational-vehicle and mobile-home parks, the Arizona Republic reported.
They attribute the uptick in part to retirees feeling more comfortable about the economy and Canadians taking advantage of the currency-exchange rate that turns their $20 into nearly 21 American dollars.
Morris Farnsworth, executive director of the Arizona Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, said an informal survey of members statewide indicated that numbers were up all over.
“Some parks were turning people away at different times,” Farnsworth said. “I have friends who come every year and stay at the same East Valley park. This year, they had to move around to two or three different parks to stay for the winter.”
Kim Marchbank, marketing director of Cal-Am Properties, said the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based company nearly filled its nine RV resorts in Mesa and Surprise, the two biggest snowbird meccas in the Valley.
“It’s cheaper for a Minnesota resident to stay here for a month than what it costs to heat their home for the winter,” Marchbank said.
With more than 44,000 recreational-vehicle spaces, Mesa has one of the state’s highest concentrations of snowbird-vacation sites, many of them with attractions such as golf, swimming, tennis, shuffleboard and big-name entertainers like Wayne Newton and Shirley Jones, both of whom played at Towerpoint Resort, a Mesa RV community, this year. With 1,100 spaces, Towerpoint hit 98% of its capacity this year, General Manager Joe McGrath said.
“We were just strong, and the thing that drives all of these communities is a sense of community,” he said. “If they have a good time, they tell their friends and want them to come.”
McGrath said much of the influx has come from Canada, and although Arizona has traditionally been a draw for people from western Canada, he is seeing residents from as far away as Ontario and Nova Scotia.
Wendell Johnson, general manager of Palm Creek Golf and RV Resort in Casa Grande, said that his numbers have been up as well and that he, too, has noticed an influx of Canadians.
“We have 1,862 spaces and were fully occupied for five or six weeks,” he said. “We had a great year.”
Johnson estimated that Canadians made up 35% of his visitors this year.
“We’ve noticed that more of them are coming from eastern Canada rather than going to Florida, where they traditionally went,” he said.
And some of those Canadians are buying winter homes in Arizona, according to at least one Valley homebuilder.
“We’ve seen a lot of activity,” builder Jeff Blandford said. “We’ve had a big influx of Canadians in the last two years, but this year, they came earlier and are going home later. Some of them come back to enjoy Phoenix or to buy a house. It’s a very nice thing that’s happened to our industry.”
Housing economist and analyst R.L. Brown said Canadians are indeed having more of an impact.
“Canadians bring other Canadians to this market,” Brown said. “It’s a great word-of-mouth thing. The buzz gets in the Canadian press and among Canadians who see each other as winter visitors.”
Two of those Canadians are Andrene and Harry Wilson of Edmonton, Alberta.
“We are basically coming down here spending, spending, spending,” said Andrene, 61, a retired teacher and consultant. “We’re not here working.”
The Wilsons recently purchased a three-bedroom home in Mountain Bridge, a master-planned community in east Mesa.
“We bought nearly $15,000 in new furniture for it,” said Harry, 65, who sold drilling equipment for the oil industry before retiring. “We love it here, especially when there is 4feet of snow in Edmonton or it’s 20-below.
“There’s going to be a real influx of Baby Boomers down here, too.”
As the winter season settles in, so do winter visitors to Arizona. That means restaurants in the Tucson area may be busier, and shopping centers more packed. With all the extra business, it’s a season that many local industries depend on.
“For about four months, we fill up completely,” said George O’Leary, owner of Rincon Country RV Resort. O’Leary says only 20% of his RV spaces are occupied by year-round residents. He depends heavily on winter visitors for the bulk of his business. And this year, he’s already off to a busy start.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he told KOLD-TV, Tucson. “One day, 10 rigs showed up without reservations, that was very nice to see that.”
O’Leary says reservations for spaces this past month are up 25% compared to this time last year. And the spending impact of winter visitors doesn’t stop there. “They’re going to restaurants and buying cars and buying RVs.”
Among the thousands of winter visitors making their home in Tucson for the season are Virgil and Carole Musch. They just arrived from South Dakota, and plan to settle in through mid-April.
“We come here every year,” Virgil said. “It’s our seventh year.”
The Muschs bought their RV in Tucson years ago, and that’s not the only money they’re pumping into the economy. They plan to go shopping and dine out often at their favorite restaurants. “By the time we leave, we’ll probably be a little bit fatter,” Virgil joked.
A survey by the Arizona Assocaition of RV Parks and Campgrounds shows a mixed industry forecast. Some RV resorts in the state are already reporting an increase in reservations among winter visitors. Some are anticipating lower numbers compared to last year, and others expect the trend to stay flat.