They come down the airplane ramps looking a little like refugees, sweaters and coats piled in their arms, a slightly numbered look still in their eyes.

In plane after jam-packed plane the tourists and prospective settlers are arriving here in record numbers this winter from snowbound spots like Niagara Falls, Garden City, Kan., and, in the case of Shirley Deering and her friends, Pigeon, Mich.

"Thank God," said Deering as she gazed around at the shirt-sleeved Saturday afternoon after alighting from a Chicago flight that was held up for more than an hour by a snow-storm there.

"This has been the coldest winter in Pigeon since 1872," said her friend, Elaine Neurath. Neurath, whose husband, Herbert, is a fuel oil dealer in Pigeon, said, "We had a heat wave when we left today. The temperature got up to 20 degrees."

The women, chucking at the weather they left behind, went off to find their tennis rackets, and joined thousands of other chilled Midwestern and Northeastern tourists who are being lured to the Southwest at a time of publicity about frost in Florida and bandits in Mexico.

Arizona tourist officials are trying to contain their glee at their fellow resort owners' misfortune. "We don't want to laugh too hard when we hear about Florida, because it could happen here someday," said Mona Smith, head of the Arizona Office of Tourism.

Mexico has been hit by a wave of publicity about bandits preying on American tourists. Travel officials here said that while the 16 recorded tourist slayings this year is not above average for Mexico, the killings have received heavy publicity, especially among tourism officials, after two travel agents were slain not long ago in Mexico.

"It's been heaven here this year," said Smith, whose tourist budget was doubled this year to $547,000 by the state but still ranks far behind states like Florida, which spends $3.6 million to land the billion-dollar tourist trade.

Tourism officials throughout, the Southwest are reporting record income already, even though the heaviest tourist months are yet to come.

In Arizona, tourism is up 10 per cent over last year.

Resort owners in San Diego said some hotels were running 40 per cent over last year's bookings, while Palm Springs, Calif., resort owners were reporting 100 per cent bookings for the next six weeks.

"I was in New York a couple of days ago," said Ted Sprague, executive vice president of the Phoenix Convention and Visitors' Bureau here, "and the airline officials said their spontaneous reservations - those people walking in out of the cold, so to speak - all wanted to come here."

One airline office in New York City, said Sprague, installed cactus plants and a thermometer in its window showing the current temperature in Arizona.

Arizona's temperatures are inviting: according to the National Weather Service, Phoenix' average daily high last month was almost 65 and Tucson's 61. Low temperatures in both cities average above 40 degrees - and January is Arizona's coldest month.

Tourism officials in Tucson, in southern Arizona, quickly bought up 60-second television advertising spots in Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis and Milwaukee last month when temperatures there began hitting record lows. A Tucson Visitors' Bureau official said the bureau got 456 letters after the ads ran.

When American Airlines Flight 329 arrived in Phoenix Saturday from New York and Chicago the shouts of greeting between the incoming sweater-clad travelers and the crowd in short-sleeved sports shirts waiting for them were quickly replaced by snow stories.

"You wouldn't believe the snowstorm that was going on when I left Fort Wayne," said a young woman as she hugged her elderly relatives.

"At first we had some trouble making up our minds," said John Lehman as he and his wife, Peggy, arrived from New York City. "I wanted to go skiing and she wanted sun," he said. "Then the freeze hit and we compromised and came here."

Along with the sharp increase in tourism, real estate officials here are beginning to see signs of a surge in interest among those who are seeking to escape the cold and settle here permanently.

"Dear Sirs," a Pennsylvania Couple wrote the tourism office here from their blizzard-stricken state last month. "We are two frozen people struggling through another harsh, snowy, frigid Pennsylvania winter envying the warm, sunny, glorious Southwest." The couple asked for information on permanent housing.

James and Ernestine Gugino, both 57, of Niagara Falls, left their home there last week for a townhouse Gugino purchased in Tucson. The couple said they flew out on the second plane allowed out of the Buffalo airport, which had been shut down for five days because of heavy snow.

The Guginos said they started thinking about moving to a warmer climate this winter when temperatures in Niagara Falls started to plumet. They considered Florida and California before coming in early January to visit her son, Robert, a Tucson attorney. After a few days of 60-plus degree temperatures, they decided Tucson was the spot.

"Every day's been Sunday since I got here," said Gugino, who was sitting in his sunny back yard Saturday, smiling at a headline from his former home-town newspaper that read, "Niagara County Declared a Diaster."

A Tucson real estate company that took one-inch ads in a number of Northern newspapers said that they have already gotten 600 letters and 30 phone calls since the ads started running in December.

"My guess is that some of these people have been pushed to the brink, right to the edge this year, and they just can't take it anymore," said realto Park Dana, whose firm ran the ads.

But not everyone here in Arizona is thrilled at the prospect of hordes of frozen settlers moving here. "The tourists are okay," said a woman who is a travel official here, "but I'd just as soon they brought their money, spent it here, and then went back where they come from."