By David Huskins • Guest Columnist
Much of the talk nationally, as well as locally, has been centered on how to get our economy moving again. Policy proposals and local budgets are being measured by whether they will create jobs and stimulate spending.
While a contentious debate about the right policy rages in Washington, D.C., there may be an answer that is much less controversial, easier to implement and, best of all, could yield better results right here in Western North Carolina.
I’m talking about investing in our travel and tourism economy.
Many people don’t realize it, but the travel and tourism industry is one of our most important economic drivers.
Nationally, travel and tourism is responsible for $704 billion in direct spending, 7.4 million direct jobs, $186 billion in payroll and $111 billion in tax revenue. There are few industries that can compete with this kind of output.
The story applies locally. Here in Western North Carolina alone, travel and tourism in 2008 was responsible for 27,100 jobs, $509 million in payroll, $2.4 billion in expenditures, $99.7 million in local tax receipts and $119.3 million in state tax receipts (N.C. Department of Commerce).
Simply put, when people travel either for leisure or business, the economy grows, jobs are created, and tax coffers filled.
So how can we in WNC invest in this precious resource and leverage it to bring our economy back?
Here are some ideas:
Promote meetings and events. Meetings and conferences are essential to business productivity. We need to support them. Corporate meetings are a major driver of local jobs and a boost to local spending. When these meetings dry up our communities’ small businesses and workers suffer. So we need to do what we can to support the meetings and events industry, and encourage more businesses and associations to bring their meetings to Western North Carolina. We have some of the nation’s finest resort and convention hotels right here in our backyard.
Promote WNC as a regional tourist destination. Our 23-county region has everything a leisure traveler wants. With the nation’s two most visited national park units — Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway — and the the two highest recreation-user-day national forests (when snow skiing is excepted) — Pisgah and Nantahala — we’re an outdoor Mecca. Our natural resource base provides some of the most popular warm climate snow skiing, fishing, hunting, backcountry hiking and camping, bicycling and whitewater recreation areas in the nation.
We’re the home of the Cherokee, the most recognized Native American Indian Tribe in the world. Our craft, culture and heritage are significant, bringing us recognition by the U.S. Congress as the 23rd National Heritage Area — the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. And just last month, our Nantahala Gorge was chosen by the International Canoe Federation in Budapest, Hungary, as the site of the 2013 World Canoe Freelance Championship (the X Games of canoeing and kayaking). That event will attract 500 competitors from 50 countries and 100,000 spectators over 10 days, garnering WNC unparalleled international sports media coverage.
It’s time that we help our local tourism organizations understand the value of working more closely together and allocating some of their resources to promote collectively WNC as a true regional destination. It’s time that we help our local economic development organizations understand the value of the travel and tourism industry to our regional economy and how to engage it and support it in their various initiatives.
Attract international visitors. When people travel from other countries, they tend to stay longer and spend more when they are here — a windfall for our local retailers and other small businesses. A national communications and marketing program called the Travel Promotion Act was just passed by Congress, which will invest in marketing to these visitors. That is great news for us since tourism research studies indicate that European and Asian leisure travelers identify our Blue Ridge-Smoky Mountains-Cherokee region as their favored destination for a trip to America.
On a final note, we need to make sure our local, state and federal elected officials understand the value of travel and tourism to our regional economy. And we need to make sure they are recognized when they go to bat for travel and tourism. Our regional economy is beginning to turn around, but we need to continue to invest in the recovery.
The week of May 8-16 is National Travel and Tourism Week. It’s a great opportunity to let our elected officials know that we support and appreciate everything they are doing to get people moving again.