WESLACO — In gauging the future impact of the Winter Texan market in the Rio Grande Valley, Thursday’s presentation of a bi-annual survey provided a good news, bad news outlook.
According to UTRGV’s 2015-16 Winter Texan Report, which is compiled every two years from university research conducted by its Business & Tourism Research Center, trends show that while visitors may be spending more in the region than ever, fewer are returning.
Penny Simpson, the center’s director and professor of marketing, presented the report before the Bi-National Tourism Meet, held at the Weslaco Business, Visitor & Event Center Thursday evening. Sponsored by South Texas Tourism, Valley International Airport in Harlingen and the Progreso International Bridge, the meet attracted a local and international audience, including Mexican media as well as Dr. Eva Lilia Gonzalez of Nuevo Progreso, and VIA’s director of marketing, Jose Mulet.
The report shows that average spending per Winter Texan household, this during their stay in the area, has reached its highest mark in at least 10 years at $14,863. Most of their one-time expenditures were on mobile homes, which averaged $1,164 in 2016, and in automobile purchases, medical expenses and property.
Monthly spending in the Valley averaged $10,775, much of which went toward housing, grocery shopping, medical expenses, dining out, transportation, utilities, entertainment and clothes.
It also shows that the amount of days Winter Texans stay in the Valley is on par with the last six years at 133.
However, the number of winter visitors has also fallen to 96,000 from 100,000 in 2014. In 2010, the number of Winter Texans in the Valley was around 144,000. Their average age is now a little older than 72, which has gradually aged from 68 years old since 2006.
Simpson attributes as much to another statistic that shows the percentage of first-year Winter Texans matching 2014’s low. At 3 percent of new visitors, she identified this demographic as a target area for local leaders. The report’s findings further revealed that 64 percent of those who don’t return identify their health as the cause.
“Since about 2012 or 2014, we’ve seen slow, steady decline, and that’s generally because the old folks’ health declines,” Simpson said before noting that the survey produced 925 respondents — half of which participated online — of the 25,000 questionnaires inserted in Winter Texan publications earlier this year. “I know the chambers (of commerce) in McAllen, Weslaco and the whole South Texas Tourism coop are trying hard to bring in new Winter Texans, because you have to understand the younger baby boomers and what they’re looking for to make sure we’re delivering on that.”
According to the survey, visitors’ average household income increased to $65,000 in 2016, the most in 10 years. Another positive trend shows total Winter Texan spending at $760 million compared to $710 million in 2014. Winter Texans have also spent $30.6 million in Mexican border communities, just below 2014’s $31.4 million.
Border spending was another component highlighted at the meet, where Simpson presented from the report a weighted average of $187 in spending — up from $170 in 2014, $165 in 2012 and $163 in 2010. Shopping also remains the primary motivation behind Winter Texans crossing the border into Mexico, as well as dining, filling prescriptions and getting dental work.
Still, overall travel across the border hasn’t budged from around five average trips, this compared to six and seven in 2008 and 2006, respectively.
Of the demographics, more than 51 percent of Winter Texans are male, nearly 66 percent have annual incomes greater than $50,000, and over 73 percent have some college or a college degree. They also happen to be among the more educated seniors in the U.S., according to the report.
Most of them have been coming to the Valley for longer than 11 years, and about 61 percent own their own property while nearly 30 percent are RV owners. In addition, more than 95 percent of visitors are likely to return next year.
The climate, the survey shows, is still the main draw to the Valley, with more than 91 percent of Winter Texans making the trip for the subtropical warmth of the area. About 69 percent say they come for the friendly people, 56 percent for social activities, 52 percent for the winter vacation aspect, 46 percent take advantage of the cost of living, and nearly 39 percent for the proximity to Mexico.
More are staying in mobile homes now than in recent years, but fewer own RVs now than in the last decade.
Mulet announced changes at VIA that many hope will facilitate an influx of winter visits to the Valley, including Southwest Airlines’ plans to use the larger 737-800 jets, which seats 175 people, and United Airlines also increasing their seat capacity gradually in the fall through the introduction of a new aircraft, the Embraer 175.
Sun Country Airlines will operate nonstop flights between Harlingen and Minneapolis between Nov. 10 to April 23; as will Delta Air Lines.
Nydia Tapia-Gonzales, director of South Texas Tourism, explained that her institution is represented by a cooperative that includes the Weslaco Chamber of Commerce and economic development corporations from Edinburg and Harlingen; as well as the City of Alamo, the City of Hidalgo and the Pumphouse, among others.
“If it tells us more and more we’re seeing visitors from Canada, then we start strategizing and going to trade shows in Canada or marketing our efforts of wherever they guide us, or wherever we’ve lost them, and we start understanding why,” Tapia-Gonzales said of how the Winter Texan Report benefits the aforementioned coop in its efforts to attract more Winter Texans. “The main challenge for all of us is the budget cuts. Sometimes, our city leaders are not very interested in promotion for Winter Texans, so it’s always a challenge to present it. That’s why we like the survey, because we can tell them the actual economic impact. Politicians and city leaders like numbers, so that’s why we believe it’s an invaluable tool for us.”