Indiana on the right path in rethinking tourism approach

Keywords Opinion

Last fall's state-commissioned report on Indiana’s tourism industry was upbeat, declaring “there is no single overt or monstrous problem that needs to be solved within the state’s tourism framework.”

That’s the nature of state reports—no one wants to cast aspersions on the gains achieved by managers and rank-and-file employees in the state’s Office of Tourism Development, part of Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch’s office.

After all, tourism in Indiana has been on the upswing, even though the tourism office receives just $4.2 million annually under the current two-year budget—way less than similar offices in adjacent states. A December study released by the state said visitors to Indiana increased from 78.9 million in 2016 to 79.9 million in 2017, and that tourism spending rose in that period from $12.2 billion to $12.7 billion.

But tucked on page 10 of the 53-page report assembled by the real estate firm JLL was this downer: “The weakest point within Indiana’s tourism effectiveness was its 1.17 percent share of the overall U.S. travel market, a figure that was declining by roughly 1 percent per year.”

In short, Indiana is capturing a declining slice of the U.S. tourism pie—a reality that should make us all shudder. With our location in the center of the United States and top-flight destinations, Indiana should be taking market share, not losing ground.

Despite the lack of five-alarm-fire language in the report, state leaders—we’re thankful to say—are taking the right steps to stoke our tourism firepower.

The report itself shows progress. It was the result of the General Assembly’s 2017 decision to appoint a five-person task force to study tourism offices across the country to find best practices and the relationship between funding and economic impact.

A bill sailing through the General Assembly this session embraces a key recommendation—that Indiana replace its tourism office with a quasi-governmental Indiana Destination Development Corp., led by a seven-member board that includes private-sector appointees.

The IDDC would receive a mix of state allocations and funding from tourism-related businesses and organizations, though it’s not clear how significant those private dollars would be.

The board makeup also would foster greater dialogue between the public and private sectors—which is more important than it might sound. In an era when placemaking has become a key driver of U.S. economic development, the tourism industry must work closely with the state not just to market attractions but also to improve them and create new ones.

Given that the measure passed the House unanimously and has the backing of Gov. Eric Holcomb, final approval appears all but certain. But no one should see that outcome as the final plank in creating a stronger tourism industry in the state. Much still needs to be done.

For starters, the bill doesn't call for increasing the state tourism appropriation—even though the tourism task force, which included Indiana Economic Development Corp. President Elaine Bedel and Visit Indy Vice President Matthew Carter—had encouraged exploring “models that are built on funding levels exponentially higher than current amounts.”

We believe that higher funding, if deployed prudently, would pay for itself many times over.

Indiana never has gone all-out to promote its tourism assets. A stepped-up push has tremendous economic upside. We should seize that opportunity.•

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