Fewer Winter Texans Visit The Rio Grande Valley

The Rio Grande Valley has been a winter refuge for northern snowbirds for many decades.

Iwo Jima Memorial,
The original sculpture of the Iwo Jima Memorial, that is in Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC, is in Harlingen at the Marine Military Academy and Iwo Jima Memorial Museum. This is the clay sculpture that the bronze statue in Arlington Cemetery was made from. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the heydays for these retired part-time residents, dubbed Winter Texans, may be over.

A new study by the University of Texas-Pan American’s Business and Tourism Research Center shows an alarming drop in the number of Winter Texans traveling to the Valley.

The survey counted about 100-thousand Winter Texans this past season, down from 144-thousand four years ago. In turn, the economic value of Winter Texans also shrunk, from 800-million dollars spent four years ago, down to 710-million dollars this past season.

Last winter, the Valley lost 33,000 Winter Texans many of whom have migrated south for many years, said the bi-annual report that surveyed 88 parks and nearly 1,400 people.

Winter Texans who have died, fallen ill, or have been deterred by Mexican drug violence have helped caused the drop, according to the survey.

Many of today’s winter visitors are younger and more mobile than their counterparts of years past.

As Winter Texans grow older, 62 percent of respondents in the report noted that health was a factor in them not returning for a new season.

World's Largest Killer Bee
Hidalgo is the “Killer Bee Capital of the World” and proud of it. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Concerned family members were the second reason that they do not return.

Perceptions of drug violence ranked third—a departure from the last survey taken in 2012, when it ranked atop the list of why wintertime visitors avoided the region.

It is a worrying trend. That’s how the head of the U-T-P-A Business and Research Tourism U-T-P-A marketing professor Dr. Penny Simpson summed up the study. It’s time for local chambers of commerce to ramp up their marketing campaigns to counteract the negative perception potential new Winter Texans may have of the Valley, she said.

Kathy Olivarez, the editor of the Winter Texan Times, says they’re getting numerous calls from readers wondering if it’s safe to return—citing national media stories that portray a dangerous border region in chaos.

Learning of the report’s findings last month prompted local chambers of commerce to join together for a call of action in late July.

“We have been tracking this, knew it was happening and have a plan,” said Nancy Millar, vice president of the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau, a branch of the local chamber.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
The Black-bellied Whistling-Duck is a boisterous duck with a brilliant pink bill and an unusual, long-legged silhouette. Watch for noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks dropping into fields to forage on seeds in the Rio Grande Valley. Listen for them, too—these ducks really do have a whistle for their call. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Millar said the chamber rounded up more than 200 business leaders to try to find ideas to keep Winter Texans coming—and coming back.

She admitted that businesses relied on word of mouth for years instead of targeted marketing in the Midwest states, where many Winter Texans reside.

Nuevo Progreso, a Mexican border town just south of Weslaco, is still considered a safe haven for many Midwesterners and Canadians who flock there for cheap dental work and discounted medical prescriptions—though there have been a handful of violent incidents.

In July, a nearby shootout between suspected armed rival groups left 10 dead and spooked some retirees. And in December 2009, gunfire erupted during an annual celebration welcoming back Winter Texans, but no visitors reported injuries.

RV parks surveyed in the 2014 report cited worried calls from prospective visitors up north, but none of the dozen RV Parks contacted for this story would confirm it.

Camping at Bentsen Palm Village RV Park south of Mission.
Camping at Bentsen Palm Village RV Park south of Mission. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 85 percent of Winter Texans said they visited Mexico for an average of five trips per year, which has helped Tamaulipas’ northern border towns rake in around $30 million in tourism revenue each year, the report said.

Others deny longtime Winter Texans are afraid.

“We are looking forward to a good year,” said mobile home park manager Gail McDaniel, who runs 1015 RV Park in Weslaco.

McDaniel said reservations are strong and most Winter Texans are not worried about border violence.

She pointed to poor health and the inability to travel for most vacancies.

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The University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA), which has tracked Winter Texansfor 25 years through a voluntary biennial survey, found that the average age of respondents in 2011 was 71.2, compared with 70 in 2010, 69.5 in 2008, and 68.7 in 2006.

The Roseate Spoonbill uses its long, flat, spoon-shaped bil to strain small food items out of the water. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2006, nearly 10 percent of respondents were younger than 60, but last winter only 4 percent were. Similarly, respondents this year said they had been coming to the Valley an average 10.4 years, compared with 9.1 years in 2010 and 2008 and 8.8 years in 2006.

The responses suggest that the same Winter Texans may be returning to the Rio Grande Valley year after year without being replaced with new, younger ones, reports The Monitor.

“It is (a concern) to me and I would think it should be to the Valley businesses that are interested in targeting Winter Texans,” said Penny Simpson, who co-authored the study.

There is no way to tell for sure if the survey results from 1,443 of the estimated 133,400 Winter Texans represent an accurate sample. It is possible that older people responded more, but if so, that would be a shift from past years.

Overall numbers of Winter Texans are difficult to capture, but believed to be down slightly from an estimated 144,000 in 2010.

Janet Poor, manager of Shady Acres RV Park in Donna told The Monitor that every year at her 300-plus-site park the faces are the same. “We’re getting the same ones coming down,” she said.

The great kiskadee is a large member of the flycatcher family. It is about ten inches in length. It has black and white stripes on the crown and sides of its head. It has a white line above its eyes. Its chest and undersides are a bright yellow and its throat is white. Its back and wings are brown and its bill and legs are black. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“I would love to get new people down here.”

Poor said that in her experience, national media attention on border problems made it difficult to recruit new visitors.

“When we get calls from new people asking about down here, the first thing they ask is: ‘How bad is it down there?’” she said.

But the vast majority of wintering retirees who do come to the Valley are still visiting Mexico — 84 percent, down from 95 percent in 2006. Several observers said the study is on par with their experiences.

Joe Nelson, 71, who has lived year-round at the McAllen Mobile Home Park for a decade, said that park has some 14 new units this year—but they’re all moving from other area parks.

“The young stuff isn’t coming,” he said.

Others in the Valley said they are still seeing young retirees come to town. Rod Graham, who operates a San Juan business creating photo directory books of Winter Texans for dozens of parks and operates the website, The Winter Texan Connection, said the survey findings did not align with his experience.

“I won’t dispute their average, but from my experience, I am seeing the baby boomers come,” said Graham, 57.

“I’ve been down here 13 years and when I came down here, everything was country western … Within the last three or four years we’ve had rock ’n’ roll bands go play in the parks and to me that’s indicative of my generation.”

Graham added that he has not noticed any demographic shifts in the hundreds of Winter Texans he photographs and has seen hugely increased traffic on his website, which he attributes to a potentially younger crowd viewing it.

Area cities are paying attention to the needs of the Winter Texans, who contributed some $800 million to the economy in 2010, according to the study.

Martha Noell, president of the Weslaco Chamber of Commerce, presented the findings to the City Commission last month and discussed things the city could do to attract visitors from colder climates, including keeping areas clean and marketing up north.

The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Luis Bazan, president of the Pharr Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses in the city had noticed a Winter Texan decline overall, but that there did seem to be some newcomers, which he called “a new breed” looking for different activities.

Simpson agreed and said she would consider further analysis on what types of activities the next generation of retirees prefers.

“That’s an important question I think we need to have answered: How do we target baby boomers?” she said.

UTPA Survey Average Winter Texan ages by year:

  • 2012: 71.2
  • 2010: 70
  • 2008: 69.5
  • 2006: 68.7

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