PHOENIX - Although the tourism sector of Tucson's economy continues to struggle, there are strong indicators that visitors - and visitor spending - are up statewide.
New figures from the Arizona Office of Tourism show more than 38.1 million people from elsewhere spent at least one night in Arizona and spent a cumulative $19.3 billion last year.
That $53 million a day in spending makes 2012 Arizona's best tourism year in more than a decade, at least in constant dollars. Even considering inflation, the report by Dean Runyan Associates said total tourism spending was still 2.5 percent above 2011.
While numbers compiled by several Southern Arizona agencies for the first quarter of 2013 show traditional measures of tourist activity here - hotels bookings and bed taxes, airport arrivals and head counts at tourist attractions - were down slightly or flat compared to the year before, the Runyan report looked a much broader range of spending statewide.
Food at restaurants, $3.6 billion, and at grocery stores, at $900 million, took the biggest bite out of tourist pocketbooks. Another $3.7 billion went to transportation, mostly gasoline and rental cars.
Retail sales, from hats to protect visitors from the sun to souvenirs like the "Arizona snowman" - essentially a hat, carrot nose and lumps of coal floating in a globe of water - accounted for $2.5 billion, with hotels and other accommodations coming in at $2.6 billion.
Still, there are some signs that, even beyond Pima County, the industry is not quite on track to full recovery.
Bookings at the Phoenix Convention Center, the largest in the state, are still lagging.
And the 161,300 tourism jobs is an increase over 2011 but still about 7,200 fewer than the record set in 2006, before the economy tanked.
State Tourism Director Sherry Henry said much of the reason is that travel-related industries are still waiting to feel a bit more comfortable that the worst has passed.
"During the really tough times, what they tried to do is what everybody did: doing more with less," she said. But with some positive signs, she expects that should encourage employers to start hiring again.
"Eventually these numbers are all going to level out," she said.
Time helps, Henry said, noting that surveys show awareness of SB 1070, which she said also impacted tourism to some degree, has seemed to fade.
Of the 38.1 million people who spent at least one night visiting in Arizona in 2012 - a 1.4 percent increase from the prior year - the new report shows the largest percentage came from Mexico. Mexicans made up two-thirds of those coming here, whether for pleasure, shopping or business.
Canadians are far behind at 15 percent. But from a pure financial standpoint, they are far better for the Arizona economy.
According to the report, more than half the money spent on tourism comes from Canadians. But much of that may be simply a function of time: Many of them stay for weeks or months.
By contrast, statewide spending by Mexicans accounts for less than 20 percent of total tourism dollars, with the balance from everywhere else.
On the domestic front, while Arizonans are known for flocking to the West Coast, there is evidence this is not entirely a one-sided relationship. California produced the largest number of Arizona overnight visitors, followed by Texas, Nevada, New Mexico and Illinois.
Total travel spending in Arizona
(billions of dollars)
1998 - $11.8
1999 - $12.7
2000 - $13.7
2001 - $13.2
2002 - $13.2
2003 - $14.1
2004 - $15.2
2005 - $16.8
2006 - $17.8
2007 - $18.1
2008 - $18.0
2009 - $16.4
2010 - $17.5
2011 - $18.5
2012 (preliminary) $19.3
Source: Dean Runyan Associates through Arizona Office of Tourism