Getting Aggressive on Tourism

February 06, 1994

It was an embarrassing moment. Jim McKay, the TV sportscaster and co-chairman of the state's Tourism Development Board, asked the director of Maryland's tourist office how much his agency spent last year on television and radio advertisements to promote state attractions.

"Nothing," came the response. "You mean virtually nothing, don't you?" asked Mr. McKay.

"No, nothing."

That's right. The state of Maryland spent not a penny to lure tourists by way of radio and television. The tourism office is so strapped for funds it isn't in the same league with neighboring Virginia and Pennsylvania, which fully recognize that tourism promotion means jobs and tax revenue.

All told, Maryland's entire budget for tourist-related activities is $5.2 million -- half of what Virginia spends and only 40 percent of what Pennsylvania spends. When it comes to advertising dollars, Maryland is outspent by Virginia 3 to 1.

It has gotten so bad that tax revenue from tourism could start to decline. That should alarm lawmakers. Every one-percent drop in market share means a loss of $6 million for the state treasury.

But if the state were to increase its tourism promotions, advocates believe the rewards could be substantial. For every $1 spent on advertising, an estimated $6.67 is returned to the state in the form of tourism taxes.

The Schaefer administration is proposing a complex funding mechanism to dedicate more money to promoting Maryland tourism. The intention is on-target, but the method seems flawed. Budget experts in the legislature don't like dedicated taxes.

Still, there is a growing recognition in the State House that Maryland's floundering efforts to break into the big leagues of tourism have to end. Perhaps the governor and legislators can agree on a five-year plan to boost advertising by, say, $3 million a year -- in hopes of generating $20 million in new tax dollars.

One way or another, Maryland's tourism industry -- the state's second-largest -- needs help. At the moment, it is being shortchanged. Given the quality of tourist activities available throughout Maryland, there's no reason tax revenues can't be boosted dramatically. But first, the General Assembly has to agree to pay for expanded promotions.

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