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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Rural Tourism Project Helps New Mexicans Make Connections

LAS CRUCES - Students and teachers from Cuba High School's Travel Academy expected to learn more about tourism promotion at this year's Rural Economic Development Through Tourism conference, but they never expected to gain $6,000 worth of technical assistance and potential business.

The Cuba representatives particularly benefited from networking with business people who use the Internet for tourism promotion. The Academy is selling package tours of Navajo attractions in northeastern New Mexico, including an overnight stay at a Navajo family's hogan, the traditional Navajo home.

"The conference really connected us up with the right people," said Rudy Valenzuela, Cuba's program coordinator.

The conference, April 22-23 in Las Cruces, was the third annual meeting of REDTT, a project run by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. About 300 people from across the state attended, nearly double the number from last year, said REDTT director Mike Cook.

"A lot of networking happens at the conference, and that's one of the most beneficial things about attending," Cook said. "It's a chance for people from small counties to interact with tourism professionals from all over the state."

The REDTT project, which began in 1992, aims to boost economic development in rural areas by promoting local tourist attractions. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), REDTT offers technical assistance, training and grants to select New Mexico counties to encourage tourism in those areas. REDTT helps set up local tourism councils to identify a region's tourism assets and market them.

The project started with just five member counties but has steadily grown to include all of southern New Mexico, Cook said. On April 1, Catron, Grant and Hidalgo counties became the newest REDTT members, thanks to a 30 percent increase in annual USDA funding to $349,000. The program now serves 16 counties, including three in northern New Mexico: Cibola, Guadalupe and Sandoval.

"The REDTT program is like water; wherever there's a place to flow, that's where we're going to go," Cook said. "Ultimately, we'd like to offer our services to every county in the state, including Taos, Santa Fe and Bernalillo counties, because there's always opportunities to market tourism assets."

During the conference, Deputy Secretary of Tourism LaNelda Rolley praised the program for helping REDTT counties achieve higher growth in tourism income than non-REDTT counties. From 1992 to 2001, the REDTT counties registered a combined 40.2 percent increase in taxable gross receipts in a Tourism Department index that includes hotel, amusement, recreation and eating and drinking establishments. In the non-REDTT counties (excluding Bernalillo), the index grew by 35.4 percent in the same period, Rolley said.

"REDTT has helped people realize how much of an economic development tool tourism really is," Rolley said. "REDTT works with people at the grassroots level, especially small businesses in rural areas that need to attract more consumers to their communities but that can't compete on an equal footing with larger towns and cities. REDTT helps unify people to work together to promote the community."

The conference included 14 different workshops about topics such as international tourism marketing, tourism development grants, lodgers tax issues and helpful hints for working with travel writers.

It also included a workshop on harnessing the Internet for tourism promotion, which is particularly important for rural communities, Cook said.

"Large communities like Santa Fe and Taos have big marketing budgets, but the Internet allows smaller communities to better compete for tourist dollars," Cook said.

That was the case for the Cuba Travel Academy. After students presented their tour plans to the conference general assembly, Ruidoso-based New Mexico Connection and Las Cruces-based Southern New Mexico Online offered to promote the tours free of charge on their web sites, representing an estimated $4,000 in-kind donation, according to Rudy Valenzuela.