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Room tax on the rise, a sign of hope in the tourism industry

Many counties are seeing an increase in tourism-related spending this year, but most have still not bounced back to their pre-recession numbers.

The only real way for counties to measure how many tourists are stopping in their towns is through its occupancy tax revenues — that is the amount of tax revenue it receives from visitors who stay overnight in a hotel. Though even that can be slightly misleading, since people may take a daytrip somewhere and then return home at night.

Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, said she hopes at some point find a better way to quantify the impact of tourism on the county each year.

“I hate that” there is no other way to show how many people are spending time and money in the county, Collins said.

In Haywood County, occupancy tax numbers have declined since fiscal year 2008. Its revenue jumped above $960,000 in the 2010-2011 fiscal year but is tracking to drop below $900,000 again in the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

“I think it was a decent year considering the weather,” Collins said, referring to last year’s warm winter, which may have kept some skiers and snowboards away from Haywood County. Winter numbers were down.

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Collins added that spring numbers were a bit better since it started warming early.

The TDA is planning for “modest improvement” in its revenues this fiscal year, Collins said. But, it’s hard to predict how things will turnout.

“There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it now,” Collins said.

Swain County, which brings in between $300,000 and $400,000, is the only one to remain steady throughout the recession. It no doubt benefits from close proximity to Cherokee, where the tribe’s casino is a major driver of tourism. Swain’s room tax revenue decreased a few thousand dollars in fiscal year 2009 but has increased every year since.

“We feel very good about that. Growth is always good,” said Karen Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce.

Despite the progress the county has shown, Wilmot said everyone in the region could always do better.

“No one is back to the boom,” Wilmot said. “I think it’s been a good summer. It’s still not back up to where it was.”

Swain County officials are expecting a large boost in tourism revenue during the next couple years as it hosts the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championship and the 2012 Freestyle Kayaking World Cup in Nantahala.

Next-door neighbor Jackson County is also hoping the paddling events will bring visitors into its hotels and other businesses during the competitions. The county saw a couple of years of declining tourism numbers after 2008 but rallied this year, posting its first gains. Its occupancy tax revenue is slowly returning to pre-recession numbers — a goal Julie Spiro, director of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority, hopes to meet in the near future.

“We are thinking positively,” Spiro said. “I actually think our trend is continuing upward.”

While Haywood tourism leaders bemoaned the warm winter, Spiro said she thinks it benefited Jackson County, particularly since fishermen could start fishing earlier in the season.

“One — we had warmer weather earlier in the year than we usually do,” Spiro said. “I do think that helped us here.”

Linda Harbuck, longtime executive director of the Franklin Chamber of Commerce, was pleasantly surprised that the town will most likely see its third consecutive year of increases to its room tax totals.

“That is looking good, which is really a surprise to us,” Harbuck said. The town of Franklin has its own three percent room tax, on top of another 3 percent in Macon County as a whole.

Harbuck added that she is not sure exactly why the numbers have improved as attendance at chamber-run events has declined or remained flat.

As for next year, “Naturally, we do want it to be better if possible,” Harbuck said.

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