The tourism industry serves as one of the top employers and tax revenue generators for the Commonwealth of Virginia and many other states. Tourism’s importance has been recognized for many decades and nearly every state has made an effort to support it. For example, the Virginia Tourism Corporation (VTC) is a public-private partnership that supports tourism development and promotion in the Commonwealth. Like most such agencies, the VTC is charged with maintaining the state’s image as a tourism destination, often conceptualized through a brand. In Virginia that brand is the iconic catch phrase Virginia is For Lovers. The Corporation also supports the Commonwealth’s Welcome Centers, plays a role in the development of attractions, distributes grant funding for local and regional tourism projects and provides support for tourism planning. The ultimate aim of its efforts is captured in its vision statement:
To foster a spirit of partnership within Virginia’s tourism and motion picture industries to develop and implement innovative and effective programs and initiatives that will grow the industry and increase economic impact and jobs, resulting in a greater tax base for localities and the state (Virginia Tourism Corporation, 2014).
This aspiration emphasizes the perceived economic value of the industry, which holds particular importance for policymakers. Tourism supports 213,000 jobs in Virginia, and visitors provided $2.8 billion in federal, state and local taxes last year. Drawn by the state’s reputation as a destination that offers beaches, vineyards, mountains and historic landmarks, visitors spent more than $59 million per day in the Commonwealth in 2013 (Virginia Tourism Corporation, 2014). As auspicious as these economic figures may be, they do not capture the social, cultural and environmental benefits tourism creates. Many scholars have found evidence that tourism can improve residents’ quality of life in communities containing such attractions. Other researchers have argued that serving as a travel destination can raise a population’s civic pride. Tourism has also offered opportunities to protect natural resources and may help to preserve culture and traditional livelihoods, as evidenced by efforts such as the development of the Crooked Road, which is playing a positive role in preserving elements of Southwest Virginia’s music heritage.
These potential economic, social and environmental benefits provide multiple reasons for policymakers to support tourism. Legislators may be focused particularly on the fact that tourists who generate revenues are non-residents and go elsewhere to vote. Nonetheless, those visitor dollars can reduce residents’ taxation while allowing for improved infrastructure and civic services. While policymakers definitely find this fact alluring, many do not recognize the full value of tourism. Just as importantly, many are not aware of the industry’s needs. And this is a challenge for the VTC, which relies on a State appropriation as its primary source of funds. In 2014 The Corporation received approximately $20 million from the General Fund for its operations and marketing efforts, visitor services and support for the Virginia Film Office (Virginia Tourism Corporation, 2014).
While some Virginia tourism business leaders contend this level of state support is not sufficient for an economic sector that provides so many jobs and tax dollars, it is nevertheless far better than the complete lack of support given the industry in some other states. In 2011, for example, the State of Washington eliminated all funding for its tourism office. That state’s policymakers indicated that necessary budget cuts justified their decision and expressed the view that other priorities were more important for the state, such as education (Yardley, 2011). This step halted any publicly funded effort to promote Washington as a travel destination, providing an opportunity for its competitors to work to capture an increased share of the domestic and international tourists that might otherwise have visited the state. Many tourism industry leaders across the country are concerned that other states facing difficult budgetary situations may follow Washington’s actions. More generally, as many policymakers champion a reduced role for government on ideological grounds, additional proposals to downsize or eliminate tourism offices look set to rise.
This reality raises the question of how the Commonwealth’s tourism industry can continue to make a case for public assistance in an often turbulent and difficult political environment. Currently, as noted above, advocates employ economic indicators, such as Virginia’s 5:1 return on every state taxpayer dollar spent on tourism, to argue for continued support. Such data certainly seem compelling, but may not be sufficient in the face of ongoing ideological hostility. What is needed is broader examination and awareness of tourism’s multiple positive impacts beyond its economic value, particularly those related to protecting natural and cultural resources and improving citizens’ quality of life. These outcomes are not always readily measured and cannot always be neatly converted to the economic indicators preferred by many policymakers. However, they will surely augment the tourism industry’s argument for continuing public support.
Whitney Knollenberg is a Ph.D. candidate in the Hospitality and Tourism Management Department at Virginia Tech. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management from Michigan State University and a master’s degree in Sustainable Tourism from East Carolina University. Her research interests include tourism’s impact on communities, leadership for tourism development, and the role of policy, power and partnerships in tourism development.