Tourism bill would nearly quadruple funding

Local tourism industry officials are excited about the prospects for passage of a long-sought bill that would nearly quadruple Colorado’s tourism promotion spending.

“It’s going to be a tremendous value to the tourism economy,” said Kevin Schneider, owner of Glenwood Canyon Resort and Rock Gardens Rafting in No Name, and a member of the Colorado Tourism Office board.

The measure would increase annual funding for tourism promotion from $5 million to $19 million. That would boost Colorado from 38th nationally in spending on tourism promotion to probably somewhere in the top 10, Schneider said.

“Right now we’re really low. It would move us back up to a position we used to enjoy previously,” said Marianne Virgili, president and chief executive officer of the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association.

The state used to fund tourism promotion through a 0.2-percent sales tax on lodging establishments, attractions and restaurants, but that tax expired in 1992 and wasn’t renewed.

State Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, whose Senate district includes Garfield County, has been working his entire legislative career, since being elected to the state House in 1992, to restore the state’s tourism promotion to an adequate level of funding.

“It’s only taken 14 years to get to this position,” he said.

He is sponsoring this year’s legislation, as is state Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, whose district includes western Garfield County. Both also serve on the state tourism board.

The current legislation has cleared the House, and the Senate Appropriations Committee approved it Wednesday. It would use state casino proceeds to pay for the funding increase.

Chances for the bill’s passage appear good, say supporters and legislative sponsors.

“It looks like it’s getting closer and closer each day,” Schneider said.

The measure earned key support from the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, which helped make it part of the next state budget.

Funding for tourism promotion stopped altogether between 1992 and 1997, and the state’s share of overnight domestic travel dropped 30 percent. Taylor estimates the state has been missing out on about $2.25 billion a year in potential tourism revenues since the demise of the tourism promotion tax.

Colorado ranks 23rd in the country for visits by tourists.

Schneider said the increased investment will pay off for Colorado because studies show every dollar spent on tourism promotion generates $13 or $14 in additional revenues.

Taylor likewise considers the additional spending a good investment, and said the bill will result in more jobs and tax revenue across the state.

“It’s absolutely imperative this funding be approved if we want to keep Colorado in the forefront of people’s minds when they think about their next vacation,” he said. “Drawing tourists is a competitive business, and right now Colorado is losing the battle. I expect this new promotional effort to help turn the tide.”

Virgili said the state’s lack of adequate tourism promotion funding has put more pressure on tourism communities.

“I think it’s caused local tourism associations like our own to have to scramble for more funding,” she said.

Glenwood Springs is mainly a destination for Front Range residents, Virgili said, so it probably hasn’t been hurt as much as the Denver area, which relies more on tourism promotion out of state. But Glenwood benefits from people who go to Denver for things such as conventions and take side trips to Glenwood, she said.

The state also did away with regional tourism promotion, including for northwest Colorado, she said.

In addition, the spending cutback impacted funding for visitor centers, forcing them to rely more on volunteers.

Virgili said she’s hoping the funding boost will let the state offer incentives to filmmakers to work in Colorado. The state used to be a major filming location in the 1980s and early 1990s, said Virgili, who recently returned from a trip to Los Angeles to meet with movie industry representatives.

“It’s really difficult when the first thing they ask you is what about incentives,” she said.

Taylor said that on top of the $19 million for tourism promotion, the bill would provide $500,000 targeting the film industry and $1.5 million for arts and cultural programs.

One caveat about the funding is that it relies on excess money made available when the state reaches its spending increase cap of 6 percent per year under the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR. Taylor said he, White and others are already working on a proposal to create a rainy-day fund for tourism promotion so it doesn’t suffer as much during slow economic times.

Still, he called the current legislation “a major, major leap” forward, and said it’s been enjoyable to finally move a measure toward passage after trying for so long.

“To see it finally fall into place I guess is what’s been fun to me,” he said.