Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: March/April 2014
Broadening The Spectrum: State Departments Of Tourism
By: Gordon Hicks
All too often we focus our collective attention on tourism at the local level, primarily the convention and visitor's bureaus, at the expense of understanding the significant role a state department of tourism plays in our industry.   In most states, these departments are under the executive branch of government and tied into a state's economic development arm.

State tourism department officials are also saddled with the burden of satisfying ambitious legislative leaders who seek support for pet projects managed by tourism departments.  Yet we are constantly reminded of legislators wanting to cut tourism dollars.  Many legislators simply don't understand the financial rewards of travel in tourism to their respective states.

Unlike CVBs, state tourism departments receive virtually all of their funding from public sources - revenues generated by travel and tourism fees such as hotel and car rental taxes.  How are those funds being spent?  Is any of it reaching the Black community?

Travel and tourism is a cash cow for state and local governments.  According to the U.S. Travel Association, travel generated $129 billion in tax revenue to governments at all levels in 2012 and $58.4 billion to state and local governments.

State tourism budgets range from $710,000 annually in Rhode Island to $75 million in Hawaii according to U.S. Travel's 2012-2013 Survey of U.S. State Tourism Budgets.

Within those state departments' of tourism operating budgets are tons of discretionary spending options that you might not be aware of.  For example, most states spend a significant amount of money courting international travelers.

The survey's findings suggest that significant dollars are being shifted from domestic to international marketing efforts.  Just over 31 percent of California's $50 million annual budget targets overseas marketing.

As African-American's we should be asking ourselves how many of those dollars spent by state tourism departments incorporate our communities through jobs, vendor relationships, or updating and marketing African-American themed museums and attractions.

But that's just the funds for state tourism departments.  What about the remaining billions that go into a state's general fund?  Are those resources reaching the Black community in terms of infrastructure like schools, road repair, police and firefighter resources?

Nationwide, one of every nine jobs depends on travel and tourism.  Travel is among the top 10 industries in 49 states and the District of Columbia.   It's the economic engine that drives several jurisdictions. 

It's easy to tax visitors by hiding the costs in hotel room rates, airport fees, and gas and car rental taxes.  We've become so accustomed to this collection of fees and taxes we never give it a second thought.  Locals love it because its one less tax residents have to pay.  But the question remains, where does all that money go?

Unless you are a good forensic accountant, it's difficult to track all the state revenues generated by travel and tourism and how they are used.

According to Bloomberg, localities nationwide are on the hook for some $10 billion of stadium bonds, backed in large measure by revenues collected from travel and tourism dollars allocated at the state level.  Is that a wise use of our money?

That's a question that can only be answered at the local level.  But one thing is certain; we have very few African-Americans asking these tough questions. 

Why?  Ethnic and racial diversity in state travel and tourism departments, like their convention and visitor's bureau counterparts is sorely lacking.  Many of the travel and tourism dollars that come from African-American's never circulate back to our communities because we have no one there to mind the store.

It's safe to say, that an entire state does benefit to some extent by things like stadiums, roads and bridges and other infrastructure by way of jobs, but is that the only problem these dollars should solve.  Remember, if you don't have a seat at the table, you are the appetizer, and we've been the appetizers for too long.

Here's an example, without mentioning names.  One major city recently held a large sporting event.  The city and state tourism officials spent years sprucing up the city promising financial reward for all.

Local businesses in all communities prepared for this once in a generation event.  When the event was actually held, local leaders conveniently steered tens of thousands of people away from the Black community.  Within six months several restaurants in the Black community were out of business, including a sports bar I frequented when in town.

As I walked around the neighborhood talking to residents and local business leaders, the anger was palpable.  For the outspoken few, they complained then simply resigned themselves to their fate never to trust again.  But accepting such blatant discrimination is not the answer.

We all know that vocal minorities often hold sway in politics.  It's not because they are right, they are simply the loudest and know how to get media attention.

That brings me back to diversity at the state tourism departments.  To our knowledge the only current existing African American leader of a state tourism department is Rita D. McClenny.  She is president and CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corporation (VTC).

Previous governor Bob McDonnell appointed McClenny to her position in 2012.  Current governor Terry McAuliffe reappointed McClenny in March 2014.  She has been widely praised by Virginia's leaders not only for her work at the VTC, but in her previous role as head of the Virginia Film Office.  She claims one of her proudest achievements was recruiting Steven Speilberg's LINCOLN to be filmed in the state.

Recently retired Alabama Welcome Center Director Frances Smiley served as interim director of tourism for that state several years ago.

We've also had African Americans play key, but not leadership roles in several state tourism departments and that influence has proven a tremendous boon to those states willing to embrace people of color.

Several states, such as Florida and Louisiana have African American heritage guides easily accessible in print or online.  Other states such as Alabama, Texas and Florida have used state tourism department financial resources to build out and improve African American themed museums.

Unlike CVBs, most state tourism positions are government jobs, which makes employment discrimination a little more difficult.  This fact alone makes states a little more responsive to the Black community, but more needs to be done.

Are there more McClenny's out there?  One of the best ways to influence decisions of state tourism departments is through voting.  Like McClenny, governors appoint most prominent positions at the state level.  You must elect political leaders who walk the talk.

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