Tourism spending flat for state, strong locally

Thursday, August 3, 2006

Higher fuel prices and less state support are being blamed for Missouri's tourism industry remaining flat through the first six months of the year.

But local tourism officials say that Cape Girardeau tourism is still strong, though they acknowledge that it's a cyclical business and fuel prices are having an impact.

Dee Ann McKinney, research administrator for the Missouri Division of Tourism, said higher gas prices have put a crimp in weekend and out-of-state visitors statewide, which in turn means fewer meals purchased, fewer nights spent in hotels and less spending in stores.

Hotel occupancy rates statewide were up less than 1 percent, but the number of people calling the state's visitor hot line and Web site for maps and other tourism information fell 30.2 percent.

Tourism generates $13.4 billion a year for the state economy.

Gas prices that are consistently above $2.75 certainly have an impact on Cape Girardeau tourism, said Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director Chuck Martin. Still, he pointed out that the hotel tax revenue was up 15 percent from June 1, 2005, to July 31, 2006.

In June, there were 243 walk-in inquiries at the CVB, he said, from 34 states, many Midwestern, but also included Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, New Hampshire and New York, as well as a few foreign countries.

"The fact is that overall, we had a positive year," Martin said. "I just have not seen a downtown in our business."

Martin said there are worries, though: Traffic on Interstate 55 is down dramatically, he believes because of hurricane damage in New Orleans.

"I think we're bucking the trend at least for the time being," Martin said. "But business is cyclical. There are times you flourish and times you have a downturn. You never let your guard down."

McKinney said the struggle to attract visitors hasn't been helped by the legislature's decision last year to cut the tourism budget, resulting in less advertising being directed toward in-state travelers and tourists across the Midwest.

"That's a big deal," she said, adding that the cuts mostly affected in-state advertising. Through June, the Division of Tourism spent $3.8 million on radio ads and newspaper inserts, compared with $4 million a year ago.

Lawmakers this year agreed to restore the funding, and then some. The division's budget has grown from $14.2 million last year to $17.8 million this year, which could push Missouri to No. 7 among states in terms of how aggressively they market themselves.

Missouri had at one time been No. 8 on the list but fell to No. 14 last year.

The budget could be higher under a state law that ties the division's funding to changes in the amount of taxes generated by 17 tourism-related industries, including lodging, campgrounds, amusement parks, zoos and botanical gardens. Lawmakers can increase the division's funding by as much as $3 million a year, but state budget-writers have kept a rein on funding increases since the Sept. 11 attacks and the economic slowdown that followed.

Business editor Scott Moyers contributed to this report.

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