This is not a newsflash: Tourism is big business in Tombstone.
Cochise County saw 1,367,700 visitors from 2012 to 2013, and those visitors spent over $279 million in the county. This clearly shows the value of tourism to the county overall and to specific towns such as Tombstone.
Many of these visitors are older people who frequent Tombstone and other sites around the county because of their association with the Old West.
According to the Cochise County Visitor Study for 2012-2013, prepared for the Cochise County Tourism Council by the Arizona Hospitality Research & Resource Center at Northern Arizona University, visitors to Cochise County are clearly interested in Old West history.
The survey showed that 70.2 percent of visitors said they were “very” or “extremely” interested in “visiting sites of Old West history.” Meanwhile, 59.8 percent indicated similar interest in visiting ghost towns, while 57 percent expressed interest in sites of mining history.
Percentages of people who were in Cochise County for photography, observing wildlife, visiting wineries, hiking, or any other category not related to the Old West were all much lower. For example, only 31.7 percent were “very” or “extremely” interested in visiting wineries.
Josh Hawley, a Tombstone resident, said “it’s those people who played cowboys and Indians when they were kids. They grew up loving the West, they grew up with the Sundance Kid, Butch Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger. Now they’re retired, so they can go and kind of live that dream and be part of the West.”
Not surprisingly, most visitors not only to Tombstone but also to Cochise County in general are older: 40.7 percent were 61 or older, and those 76 or older comprised the single biggest group by far, with 19.7 percent of visitors.
This is in sharp contrast with other age groups visiting the county; only 2.8 percent of visitors fell in the 21 to 35 age range. The median age for all visitors was 55.
Not only does the “Old West” have a significant allure for older people because they grew up watching Westerns, but the exceptionally high percentage of those aged 65 or older living in Southern Arizona also contributes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 16.6 percent of people living in Pima County were 65 or older; Cochise County had even more with 18.1 percent of the total population.
This is higher than both the state average of 14.8 percent and Maricopa County’s 13 percent. For comparison, neighboring California has 12.1 of its population in that age range, while the state of Texas has only 10.9 percent.
In the Cochise County city of Bisbee, 20.7 percent of residents are 65 or older; Benson is home to an astronomical 31.3 percent 65 or older.
The U.S. Census Bureau released a report on May 6 stating that the over-65 population in the United States will double by 2050; nevertheless, shop owners and others in town tend to be unified in their belief that something will eventually have to change, but exactly what that will be is more elusive.
“Well it’s got to be done, otherwise the town is going to die,” said Linda Weber, owner of Outlaw T’s and More.
“Once this generation dies off with that love for the cowboys and the West, the town’s really going to fall back on hard times,” said Hawley.
The feeling that there will need to be a specific cultural trend to kick start enthusiasm for the Old West is a common one.
“We need a zeitgeist, we need something like the film that came out in ‘93 that took everyone by storm,” said Kyle Bengel at Silver Strike Winery. “We need something that’s going to make it cool to see Tombstone again.”
“Part of the issue, in my opinion, is that a lot of the shop owners are in that 65 to 75 demographic themselves, and they say ‘we’ve got to get something to get the 25- to 30-year-olds in here,’” Bengel said. “But, they don’t have a clue what the 25-to 30-year olds are doing.”
Some believe that Tombstone should follow the example of other towns that have reinvented themselves.
Bengel said his vision for Tombstone is either nearby Bisbee, or Telluride, Colo., the mining town that pulled itself out of bankruptcy 30 years ago to become an upscale destination.
Tombstone at Twilight, the once-a-month Saturday night event where businesses stay open late in a bid to attract visitors, may also serve a vital role in the future.
“We need to start pulling together and that’s what we’re trying to do with Tombstone at Twilight,” said Weber.
Thomas Combrink, the senior research specialist at the Arizona Hospitality Research & Resource Center, the organization that prepared the visitor survey for the county, believes that tourist towns in the county should do two main things in order to continue to prosper and attract visitors: build relationships in the area and emphasize what they have.
“I think communities need to look to what they’ve got close by and build relationships there. In Willcox they’ve built partnerships with the wine industry, and the wine industry’s come in and put tasting rooms in,” Combrink said.
Combrink emphasized that in order to attract younger visitors, communities will have to look to natural resource-based tourism, such as rock climbing in the area around Cochise Stronghold and hiking trails around the county.
While acknowledging that attracting new demographics of tourists by developing new opportunities for visitors is important, Combrink also stressed that historical tourism is and will continue to be one of Cochise County’s major strengths.
“I think that Cochise has always been well positioned for tourism,” he said. “Historical tourism can’t be bought, and either you have it or you don’t, and Cochise has it.”