San Diego Business Journal

Visitors Attracted to Leisure, Business Although San Diego County tourism might seem one-dimensional, there's more to it than that.

While tourism here focuses heavily on the ocean and coastal communities, an estimated 30 percent of the county is desert and home to small, arid and profitable townships like those around the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Case in point: Borrego Springs , one of the state park border communities , yearly generates more than $300,000 in transient occupancy taxes for the county, "indicating that this pristine desert region is a force in both the leisure travel and meetings and conventions industry," said Jim McCullough, general manager of La Casa del Zorro Desert Resort.

The region has a high appeal for travelers seeking warm-weather experiences away from the crowds of more publicized desert getaways in Southern California, McCullough said.

- Anza-Borrego Among

Largest State Parks

According to the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, Anza-Borrego is one of the largest state parks in the nation with 600,000 acres. It's home to an abundance of desert wildflowers, which generally bloom through April, and the few remaining desert big horn sheep.

Unlike other desert spots in the greater Coachella Valley, which is now inundated with increased traffic, strip malls, car dealerships and other development, Borrego prides itself on the fact it has only one elevator and doesn't contain one stop light , in the entire town, McCullough said. Rather, all the lights are used at the Borrego Airport, a 24-hour facility featuring a 5,000-foot newly rebuilt runway and pilot-controlled lighting.

But for many county residents within a short drive, it remains , ironically , a secret.

Research conducted by the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce indicates many San Diego County residents go years without visiting this eastern portion of the county, even though Borrego Springs promotes seasonal festivities.

"If you have never visited Borrego, the annual Grapefruit Festival (set for April 8-9) is an annual crowd-pleasing event that celebrates the spring citrus harvest," he said. "Did you know there are over 2,000 acres of citrus grown in Borrego Valley?"

- Grapefruit Festival

Draws Desert Visitors

The festival, first held in 1990, includes live musical entertainment, dance parties, a tennis tournament, a picnic, a classic car show, youth games, horseshoe tournaments and interpretive programs at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It is expected to draw well over 3,000 people this year, according to the Borrego Springs chamber.

Locals say Borrego Springs' atmosphere of peace and tranquility attracts visitors from all over the globe, sometimes 1 million per year or better.

With rugged mountains, colorful wildflowers, cacti, palm groves and other natural wonders, the state park provides a stunning backdrop for visitors to Borrego. It is located 80 miles northeast of Downtown San Diego and 80 miles south of Palm Springs, just over the nearly 9,000-foot Santa Rosa Mountains which separate the Coachella and Borrego valleys.

With a wide range of outdoor and leisure activities, lodging in Borrego Springs ranges from four-diamond/four-star resort accommodations to camping under the stars in the state park. The town, home to about 3,500 permanent residents, offers a sincere desert-at-your-door experience with more than 330 hotel rooms and more than 17,000 square feet of meeting space, complete with an array of business services, including videoconferencing.

- Unique Meetings

In Desert Setting

"You can also utilize the endless acres of desert for one-of-a-kind meetings," McCullough said. "Imagine your opening session at the open-air Nierenberg Amphitheater, near the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains. (Your) attendees will never forget the experience."

Borrego offers such recreational features as guided Jeep tours, dune buggy tours, horseback riding, captivating hiking and mountain biking trails, hot air balloon rides, and tennis. Visitors can choose from five area golf courses and 500 miles of dirt roads and 100 miles of paved roads for recreational vehicles.

National Geographic Traveler magazine named the area as one of the "Top 10 affordable spring getaways in the country," while the New York Times described the setting as offering "the rewards and complexity of a Zen garden."

- Visitors Attracted

To A Warm Climate

During the spring months, Borrego attracts flocks of out-of-town snowbirds from around the world because seasonal temperatures are usually 20 degrees warmer than the rest of San Diego County.

In addition to snowbirds, Borrego has attracted the film industry, which pumped nearly $400,000 into the local economy, according to the Film Liaisons in Borrego Springs. Such films include the HBO movie, "From Earth to the Moon," produced by Tom Hanks and Ron Howard.

So while many people think of the ocean when talking about San Diego County, McCullough said, "the desert plays a vital role in the county's tourism industry."