Antoinette Vigil, deputy secretary of tourism in New Mexico, really didn’t have the answer the morning of Jan. 5 at the Rio Rancho Roundtable NAIOP meeting at premiere Cinemas.

What does the Tourism Department tell potential tourists when they ask about Rio Rancho? she was asked, and she said callers would be referred to Dora Dominguez, the county’s business and economic development director position, or to the Sandoval Economic Alliance.

It was sort of a trick question, because although Sandoval County has quite a few tourist attractions in its vast area, Rio Rancho – despite being the state’s third-largest city – basically has but one destination that draws people: A Park Above.

As for Sandoval County, Vigil had some numbers: In 2021 (2022 data is not available), visitors to Sandoval County spent $270 million, which she said equaled $25.1 million in state and local tax dollars. And, she noted, 10% of Sandoval County’s workforce is supported by visitor spending, or about 2,356 jobs.

Festivals, events, museums and state parks, for example, not only attract visitors but also revenue. And the state tourism folks are doing their best, which includes promotional items at seven big airports mostly in the West, to attract people from outside the state to visit New Mexico, bringing in new dollars – a must in economic development.

Jerry Schawlow, executive director and CEO of the Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce, provided that answer following the session, and although people from outside the state bring their able-bodied and disabled children to the iconic, fully inclusive 6-acre park on the city’s south side, even if a million people visited, there is no revenue garnered there.

And, as Vigil noted, tourism is the state’s second-leading generator of revenue, behind only the oil and gas industry.

“Tourism has bounced back,” Vigil said: The state welcomed a record 39 million visitors in 2021, and that generated an estimated $7.2 billion in direct spending in 2021, with a record $7 billion in visitor spending by domestic travelers.

Those numbers surpassed the 2019 – pre-pandemic – totals for domestic visitors by 1.5 million and domestic visitor spending by $159 million. The estimated spending per overnight trip was recorded at $335 for 2021, slightly surpassing the estimated overnight spending of $331 per trip in 2019.

Visitor spending sustained 83,811 jobs for New Mexicans in 2021, representing nearly 8% of the state’s entire labor force. Visitor spending generated an estimated $708 million in state and local tax revenue, which offsets the tax burden on New Mexicans by $893 per household.

Vigil teased a “really big announcement” coming up in Santa Fe on Jan. 24, which she expects will “be a game-changer in New Mexico.”

Also coming up in the New Year, NMTD’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget request to the Legislative Finance Committee includes a $3 million increase to accommodate media inflation, a $4 million increase to sustain investments in the department’s growing cooperative programs with local destinations and a $1.2 million increase to fully fund the department’s full-time employees.

More on state tourism

Late last year, President Joe Biden appointed Tourism Secretary Jen Paul Schroer to represent New Mexico on the Route 66 Centennial Commission.

There are a dozen members on the commission, which has members from the private sector, federal government and eight states along Route 66, aka the Mother Road.

Route 66, which has the longest stretch of its 2,400-plus miles in New Mexico, will be celebrating its 100th year of existence in 2026. A portion of it once passed through Sandoval County.

The commission was established by Congress to study — and recommend in a report back to it — activities that would be fitting and proper to celebrate the centennial.

In a recent Route 66 campaign, the New Mexico Tourism Department highlighted feature locations on and off the route, the state’s place in the history of Route 66, and a New Mexico True story about the people that keep the heritage of the Mother Road alive.

Sandoval County

On the tourism department’s website (, aka New Mexico True, here is what potential visitors to the county read as an enticement:

“Less than an hour from Albuquerque’s international airport and the allure of Santa Fe beats the heart of New Mexico. Can you hear it? Cool mountain forests. Hot springs. Lush riverbanks. High desert vistas. Can you see it? Spicy chile and exquisite wine. Can you taste it? Sandoval County is a land of contrast steeped in history. From pueblo Indians to Spanish explorers to Mexican traders, these diverse cultures continue to enrich this land and all its visitors. Can you feel it? From bustling Rio Rancho and Bernalillo to the serenity of Jemez Springs and wide-open wilderness, Sandoval County has plenty to offer.”