July 2017 Column: Tourism essential to Western Mass economy
When I was assigned committees several months ago, I smiled at how fitting each of them was to our local community: Higher Ed (obviously); Housing (one of the biggest systemic issues especially in Amherst); and Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development. Today I want to talk about the tourism part of that last one, based on some wonderful recent conversations and the reality that our Governor is ignoring the potential for even more economic development and revenue generation through this industry.
Hampshire County is a great destination for tourists. Largely focused around our five colleges, beautiful natural spaces, and cultural facilities, the tourism industry is a highly productive – and often undervalued – generator of revenue in the area. Not only do the visits of folks from across the state and country enrich the culture of our local communities, the money they spend here strengthens our local economy and generates revenue to invest in our schools, in affordable housing, and more.
Massachusetts is ranked as one of the top 10 states visited by foreign travelers, and the tourism industry in Massachusetts provides the state with 135,000 jobs. In 2015, the state welcomed 23.5 million visitors who spent $20.2 billion generating $1.3 billion in local and state tax revenue.
I recently traveled with the Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development committee to Plymouth, MA for a panel on tourism in that part of the state. I listened to local business owners, representatives of the area chamber of commerce and tourism council, and local elected officials. They discussed the challenges and opportunities facing their cities and towns which depend so heavily on the tourism industry.
It became clear that a primary concern is the recent decline in state investment in the tourism industry. For tourism to thrive, the state must commit to supporting the towns and businesses who produce it. Advertising to potential travelers in other states and even other countries generates significant returns on investment – but only when we make the upfront investment. Members of the committee on which I serve were in agreement that such investment is necessary if we want to receive the benefits of a flourishing tourism industry, and improve the health of our economy and local and state budgets.
In 2016, Governor Baker cut $7.6 million from the Department of Travel and Tourism’s $8.9 million budget (yes, that isn’t a typo, I checked). Likewise, the legislature had set aside $6 million in the state budget for regional tourism councils. Governor Baker cut that amount to $3 million. We won’t reach anywhere near our full potential if the administration continues to view tourism as an unnecessary expenditure, rather than the revenue generator it is.
State leaders must treat the tourism industry in Massachusetts as a critical generator of revenue which the Commonwealth cannot do without. Last year and this year we have experienced a budget shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars, mainly due to lower-than-expected tax revenues. Tourism across the state can help close that gap.
Later this session, I will get to bring my colleagues on the Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development committee to visit the Pioneer Valley. They will get to experience the plethora of possibilities this area offers for the tourism industry. I know how much current activity and untapped potential they will see in visiting local museums, businesses, and colleges.
Already there have been increased efforts by local officials in Hampshire County to market the area’s many attractions. The Hampshire County Regional Tourism Council is building a strong social media presence with campaigns to promote unique experiences for visitors to the county. Regional collaboration among RTCs and chambers of commerce are marketing the Pioneer Valley and Western Mass as a whole to visitors who may be the next patrons at our Pleasant St restaurants.
And there are some exciting ideas on the horizon – for instance, there are talks about creating an express railway between the Berkshires and New York City, and continued advocacy by us Western Mass legislators to create a high speed rail between Springfield and Boston. It is this type of bold thinking which will grow economic and cultural opportunities for our region.
The allure of the Pioneer Valley attracts visitors from across the country and globe. It is now time to think about the tourism industry as essential to the success of the Commonwealth. The residents, businesses, and community organizations of the Pioneer Valley will be the ones who benefit from the state’s investment in our museums, cultural sites, schools, and other attractions.