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Benjamin Spillman

Survey aims to gather data on rural Nevada tourism

28 March 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada – It only takes a few seconds to find out 38,914,889 tourists experienced the bright lights of Las Vegas in 2006.

Calculating how many marveled at the bright lights of Tonopah -- an isolated town in central Nevada considered one of America's best spots for stargazing -- is slightly less precise.

"We have some people in Vegas who come up here, some people in Reno who come down here," said Jim Heidman, president of the Tonopah Astronomical Society. "We've had people from California."

A new survey by people hoping to shed light on tourism opportunities in Tonopah and throughout rural Nevada, however, should make it easier to understand just how many visitors are going beyond Las Vegas to explore rustic Silver State destinations.

The survey by the Nevada Commission on Tourism is an attempt to quantify for the first time how many tourists visit rural Nevada, where they come from, how much they spend and who they are.

The commission now estimates 2.5 million people, an amount roughly equivalent to the population of Nevada, visit rural areas outside Clark County and Reno annually.

But that figure is based on an estimate that 5 percent of Las Vegas, Reno, Mesquite and Laughlin tourists visit rural Nevada. The survey is expected to paint a clearer visitation picture.

"It is not good enough," said Chris Chrystal, media relations manager for the commission, about the current data. "That is why we want to have a more exact count."

Preliminary results of the survey estimate the average visitor spends $373 during a typical trip, which lasts longer than three days. The average age of a rural Nevada tourist is 41 years and the typical group size is slightly less than three, according to early results.

Researchers used the Internet to gather most of the information for the survey, which cost about $50,000. That's because it would be too expensive to conduct personal interviews with visitors over an area as large as Nevada.

"It would have been at least $300,000 if we had done it by intercepting people on the street," Chrystal said.

Getting hard information on visitor demographics, a technique Las Vegas boosters have honed to a science in the course of developing a nearly $40 billion hospitality industry, will help rural communities stretch their small-town marketing budgets further than ever before, Chrystal said.

"A lot of these communities, they don't have tourism departments," Chrystal said. "One of the main purposes of having this study was to give the rural communities information about themselves."

Throughout Nevada, one of the nation's largest and least densely populated states, communities are enhancing their sales pitches to attract tourists. They market to lovers, outdoor adventurers, ghost town enthusiasts and off-road riders, among others. The out-of-the-way areas will be the subject of the Rural Roundup tourism conference Thursday and Friday in Primm.

The state's desolate back country is home to America's Loneliest Highway, the Extraterrestrial Highway, the Ghost Train and other quirky attractions.

"It really has to do with what we have here that has never been promoted," said Chris Melville, city manager of West Wendover, a community of 7,500 residents and five casinos on Interstate 80 near the border with Utah.

Melville said the community uses a $30,000 grant from the commission promote tourism. Key to its strategy is an effort to attract bird watchers, off-road riders, horseback riders and hikers to explore attractions like the nearby Toana Range. Grant money has helped fund advertising in national birding and driving magazines as well as publications in Salt Lake City.

"If it wasn't for the tourism market and the gaming that we have we wouldn't exist," he said.

Broadening the tourist demographic in West Wendover could lead to longer stays in the community, which translates to more money in the local economy.

"It is a benefit to everyone to get people to stay longer," Melville said. "Unlike Vegas, or maybe even Reno, it really is a one-night, or two-night stay at the most."