With little brouhaha or fanfare, the Swain County Board of Commissioners voted last week to nudge its room tax up 1 percent, less than two months after the idea was first floated publicly.
“We felt like it would be a good plus for Swain County,” said County Commissioner David Monteith. “It is not on the local people. It is on the tourists.”
The Swain County Tourism Development Authority first introduced the idea of an increase to commissioners in mid-January. It will go into effect in July.
The tax on overnight lodging stood at 3 percent before the vote. The increase will bring in at least an additional $100,000 annually and will be earmarked for special tourism projects.
“It’s a very good thing,” said Brad Walker, a Swain County Chamber of Commerce board member and chairman of Smoky Mountain Host.
The former Bryson City mayor said it would give the tourism agency flexibility to support special projects it currently doesn’t have a budget for.
“We are now trying to help develop attractions,” Walker said, adding that the county cannot do that without additional funds.
One project that the additional money could help with is the renovation of the historic courthouse in Bryson City into a visitor center and museum.
Another target for funding is the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships, which is expected to draw thousands of out-of-towners to the county. The tourism agency wants to post signage advertising the kayaking competition and help with beautification efforts near the Nantahala Gorge where the event will be held.
Swain County had one of the lowest taxes on overnight accommodations in the state. More than half of the counties in the state have a tax that is more than 3 percent.
Opponents of the increase, however, say it could hurt business.
The county should focus on advertising its comparatively low taxes, not jack them up, said Winfred Brooks, who has worked in the cabin rental business for 20 years.
“This is not the time to consider gouging traveling tourists anymore,” Brooks said. “Keep your taxes low you will get more visitors.”
Now, if someone pays $100 to stay the night in a Swain County hotel or inn, he or she will pay an additional $4 a night compared to $3 a night, not counting sales tax, to occupy the room.
Swain’s room tax collections increased 5 percent last year and 8 percent the year before that, making it one of the few counties that has escaped a downturn in its room tax collections as a result of the recession.
Last year, Swain County brought in $341,000. The money is used to promote tourism, mostly by advertising and marketing Swain as a destination.
The county can currently use up to 30 percent of its current room tax collections on tourism projects, including the Christmas lights featured throughout downtown Bryson City.
Room tax rates
• 3 percent: Clay, Graham, Macon, Mitchell, Yancey, Jackson*
• 4 percent: Haywood, Swain, Buncombe, Transylvania, Cherokee
• 5 percent: Henderson, Madison, McDowell
• 6 percent: town of Franklin, Watauga
*Jackson County has proposed an increase to 6 percent.