HARRISBURG — State Rep. Karen Boback has heard all about Michigan’s tourist attractions, thanks to the multi-million-dollar “Pure Michigan” ad campaign that brings views of the state’s freshwater coastlines, scenic highways and picturesque lighthouses to her television screen in Pennsylvania.
“Every time I turn on the news, it’s there,” Boback, R-Luzerne, said of the “Pure Michigan” commercials. “And yet when I go to other states, I don’t see, ‘Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania.’”
There’s a push to change that, but it would mean tourists already coming to the state will have a little less in their wallets to spend on souvenirs. State lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow 54 counties to raise their hotel taxes to 5 percent from 3 percent to pay to market Pennsylvania’s tourist attractions.
The 2-percent bump would give local visitors bureaus across the state more money to promote their regions — and in turn Pennsylvania — at a time when the state has drastically cut its tourism spending.
While Michigan is spending $12 million on its national advertising campaign to lure visitors from across America, Pennsylvania is barely baiting the hook, despite being home to attractions like the Liberty Bell, Amish country and the Pocono Mountains.
Pennsylvania will spend $2.6 million on tourism marketing this fiscal year, far below the high-water mark of $44.3 million from 2000-01, according to figures from the Pennsylvania Association of Travel and Tourism, an industry advocacy group.
A higher hotel tax would help backfill the losses. The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and the state visitors bureaus have lobbied for the legislation allowing the increase. They even have an unlikely ally: the state’s lodging industry.
It’s new territory for John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, who spent about 25 years in the hotel business. He also served as the volunteer chairman of the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association.
“I spent most of my life fighting against hotel tax increase on that side, as you might imagine,” Longstreet said. “What’s remarkable about this bill is that we have the support of our members here to increase the taxes paid because they recognize how important it is to spend money on tourism.”
While saying the tourism industry really needs statewide funding for marketing efforts, Longstreet still said an extra 2 percent could be a “game-changer” for dozens of counties. It would also create more uniform hotel taxes across the state, where individual counties’ rates can vary.
Of course, the price of that would be a higher lodging bill for travelers, who already pay the state’s 6-percent hotel occupancy tax. Higher hotel taxes at the county level mean tourists will have less money to spend once they get to Pennsylvania.
State Rep. Keith Gillespie, the York County Republican who is sponsoring the bill, is quick to point out the legislation doesn’t automatically increase the hotel tax. It only gives county governments the choice to raise it, he said.
“Some of them will. Some of them probably won’t,” Gillespie said.
Another lawmaker said it’s hard to imagine local officials won’t take advantage.
“Believe me, I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night. So I know that if we provide the availability (to go) from 3 percent to 5, that most surely most of the counties are going to go right to the 5 percent,” said state Rep. David Millard, a Columbia County Republican who sits on the House Tourism and Recreational Development Committee.
Advocates of the legislation are counting on a sizable return on investment to make up for that.
Tourism is a big industry in Pennsylvania, second only to agriculture. Travelers inject $38.4 billion annually into the state economy, and the travel and tourism industry generates $4 billion in state and local tax revenue each year, according to the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
The hope is that giving local visitors bureaus more funds to promote travel destinations in their regions will bring in more visitors, who will spend money in Pennsylvania’s restaurants, fill up their gas tanks here and take in local culture.
For every dollar invested, $7 is returned, said Rob Fulton, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Travel and Tourism.
“Every county fluctuates on what the return might be on that, but it’s always to the positive,” he said.
Like Michigan, Utah has recently taken to the silver screen to pull visitors west. It spent $4 million last year on its “Mighty Five” campaign to attract adventure seekers to the five national parks within its borders.
Emily Moench, public relations manager for the Utah Office of Tourism, Film and Global Branding, said it’s paid off. For every dollar spent on advertising, $126 in visitor spending has been returned, she said.
That’s the type of payoff state lawmakers who support the higher hotel tax want to see. State Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, said a higher hotel tax could bring in an additional $100,000 in tax revenue to promote Lebanon County.
“That sounds like a lot, but $100,000 is not a lot of money,” Diamond said. “But because of the return on investment for tourism, I believe that extra $100,000 for the people of Lebanon County will absolutely be fantastic for the economy of our area.”