Tourism figures point to a post-recession recovery
Recently released figures on the impact of tourism in Western North Carolina are encouraging. More visitors are spending more money, and that means new jobs and increased sales tax revenue.
But there’s even more relevant news for those of us who believe that tourism should be viewed as a long-term, viable industry for the region. A study conducted in Buncombe County found that successful tourism marketing leads to direct increases in more traditional manufacturing jobs. Those jobs are increasingly difficult to attract in this era of cheap overseas labor.
First the overall picture: state tax receipts as a result of visitor spending neared the $1.1 billion mark in 2014. The figure represents a 4 percent hike over 2013’s figures.
In our region, nearly every county had an increase in tourism spending. Haywood County, for instance, went up 4 percent from 2013 to $161.2 million in 2014, according to a report prepared for Visit NC by the U.S Travel Association. In Jackson County, tourism spending rose 5 percent to $171 million, Macon was up 5.6 percent to $148.7 million, and Swain had no increase this year but still topped the counties west of Buncombe with $187 million in tourism spending in 2014.
The numbers alone are just benchmarks, a tool for gauging the overall impact of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who each year flock to Western North Carolina. But the report also included another figure: the tax savings per resident and the local tax receipts per county. In Haywood County, for example, visitor spending brought in $5.97 million in local tax revenue, while it saved each resident $243 in taxes; in Swain County, the total taxes brought in was $11.25 million and each resident saved $1,033.
The recession hit this area hard, particularly in tourism and real estate. So it’s just gratifying for the economy as a whole to see these kinds of numbers.
Tourism critics say we should do more to attract professional and manufacturing jobs. Well, yes, we all like those higher-paying jobs, and most anyone who studies and looks at the overall economic picture knows we need them as part of the mix. But in the 23 years I’ve lived in WNC, I’ve watched many young people who came here to take some of those low-paying tourism jobs — raft guides, bartenders, servers, art gallery clerks — become entrepreneurs and business owners themselves, or move up to become leaders of those same businesses where they may have started out making minimum wage.
Adam Sacks, an economist who specializes in tourism, spoke two weeks ago to tourism officials in Asheville. His firm — Pennsylvania-based Tourism Economics — recently conducted two studies for Buncombe County.
One finding was that attracting visitors who discover the quality of life amenities in a community often leads to investment in other sectors. Sacks said GE Aviation’s decision to invest $100 million in a Buncombe County plant that opened in 2014 and will eventually employ 340 was directly related to its executives’ love of Asheville’s vibrant downtown and the wide variety of outdoor activities it offers. Sacks told the Asheville Citizen-Times that tourism critics should realize that “it’s not a zero-sum game … investing in tourism doesn’t mean you can’t also invest in other industries.”
As we head into what we used to refer to as the shoulder season — late August and September, the time between summer and fall — it’s a good time to consider how much tourism means to the economy of our region. Back in the early 1990s, the shoulder season could also have been called the “mid-season economic slowdown” because hotel rooms were vacant, downtowns were empty and retail shops needed customers.
That’s just not the case anymore. Tourism marketing folks have worked for years to make WNC a year-round destination, and evidence points to the fact that they are succeeding. And all that investment in tourism spills over into every other facet of our economy. A rising tide lifts all ships.