Old heritage and new hospitality build vibrant tourism
San Antonio — It is 11:30 a.m. on a weekday and employees from nearby city hall are jockeying with tourists for a seat in the plaza of the renovated "mercado," or market, where a Mexican mariachi band is tuning up for a noontime concert.
Across town, conventioneers adjourn early for a leisurely lunch at one of the outdoor cafes along the "paseo del rio" -- a river walkway of restaurants and shops just steps from the hotel lobby.
Business and pleasure mix so well in San Antonio, it is difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends.
Jerry Panzer, a researcher with a major oil company in New Jersey, sees a great contrast between his first business trip to this city 15 years ago and a recent convention he attended here. "Then, I stayed at a seedy motel and none of this was here," he says, motioning to the river walk visible through the hotel lobby window behind him.
"Now, I wonder if I should tell my wife about San Antonio. I know she will want to come here for a vacation," he smiles.
It is the comfortable blend of a modern, working city with a resortlike atmosphere that has made San Antonio an increasingly favored convention site and tourist destination in the United States.
"We're an urban area, but we do not display the problems of most urban areas. In San Antonio, you walk out of your hotel into what is often a parklike setting ," says John Mosty, director of the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau.
For the most part that is true. The city's oldest downtown hotel, for example, reputed to be the site where Teddy Roosevelt organized his "Rough Riders," fronts on a park with a white gazebo that bespeaks small-town America.
Tourism received its first major boost in 1968 when San Antonio hosted the World's Fair. The event put the city on the map in terms of generating significant visitor interest beyond the Texas state line, and brought the construction of the city convention center.
Although a financial loss, the World's Fair "brought San Antonio out of its shell," asserts Fred W. Burtner, president of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. Further, he believes some of the vacant land on the fairgrounds will be the setting for valuable real estate development in future years.
Last year some 8.5 million visitors came to San Antonio, making it the second most popular destination in Texas. (Dallas was first.) The visitors spent over Visitors Bureau.
The total visitor population was unchanged from 1978, but city officials consider that a good show, considering last summer's gas shortages.
The convention business soared in 1979, however, generating almost twice as much revenue for the city as the year before. And the number of conventions in the first seven months of 1980 is up significantly over the same period last year.
The growing convention business has helped ignite a boom in hotel construction and expansion. Last year over 925 new hotel rooms were added, and hotel construction is under way that will add 1,170 more rooms.
San Antonio's hotels mesh well with the character of the city, and it is not by accident. The vocal and politically strong San Antonio Conservation Society has won enough local battles on development issues that most developers now seek their advice on new projects. "We work very well with the developers," says Mrs. Peggy Penshorn, first vice-president with the conservation society.
Indeed, the Hyatt Regency under construction downtown near the river walk "is being built so as not to throw a shadow on the Alamo" several blocks away, notes Mr. Mosty.
Great attention to the city's history and cultural tradition has proved worthwhile. It was in 1924 that the city council at first decided that the downtown portion of the San Antonio River, now the site of the bustling paseo del rio, should be paved over as part of a flood-control project.
A group of 13 women, who were the then fledgling conservation society, put on a puppet show for the city council. They chastised the council for the plan to cover the river, which they likened to killing "the goose that lays the golden egg."
The river was saved and has proved a valuable asset. It has become a focal point of the city, both commercially and recreationally. It just through the city like an urban canyon, offering relative quiet and a shady respite from the street-level heat and noise.