Tourism spending lagging in Indiana

KPC News

When Indiana decided to spend some $2 million on putting a positive spin about the state, it practically doubled what the state spends on tourism promotion annually.

A New York public relations firm will combat the negative image Indiana developed over the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was seen as a bill that legalized discrimination of gays. The bill was fixed in order to make sure it really didn’t do what Republicans legislators and Gov. Mike Pence said it wouldn’t do, but the damage was done.

The spending is being done jointly by the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and the Indiana Office of Tourism Development.

“The Indiana Office of Tourism Development is partnering with the IEDC on this initiative to restore Indiana’s image after the recent political controversy surrounding RFRA,” said Jake Oakman, spokesman for the Office of Tourism, in an email obtained by KPC Media Group and widely reported by Indiana media.

Nobody seems to know exactly how much money is going to be spent with the high-powered New York firm of Porter Novelli. The costs could grow once media buys are made. Press accounts Wednesday had the figure at $2 million, without advertising dollars. On Monday, it was $1 million.

Assuming the $2 million figure is accurate, it is nearly double the $2.3 million spent on tourism in Indiana in 2013, according to data from the U.S. Travel Association.

Does $2.3 million seem like a lot? Or $4.3 million? That’s what Indiana’s 2013 spending would total if added to the $2 million supposedly being spent for RFRA damage control.

Well, consider our neighbors. Based on the same data set from the U.S. Travel Association, No. 2 in the race to the bottom for tourism promotion by the states contiguous to Indiana — we’re at the bottom, by the way — is Ohio, which spent $5 million in 2013. Kentucky spent $7.4 million, Wisconsin $14.8 million, Michigan $27.4 million and Illinois $55.4 million.

This draws a couple of observations.

No. 1: Tourism spending is too low if Indiana is supposed to compete for visitors with surrounding states and what they are spending.

No. 2: No matter how much Republican backers of RFRA say the law was misunderstood, not discriminatory and only protected religious freedoms (already guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution), it was costly to Indiana.

Tourism spending in northeast Indiana varies. It is based on innkeeper tax receipts, which are generated by visitor stays in hotels. So, in counties with few hotels that generate the tax, the available dollars are less than in, say, Steuben County, which draws some 2 million visitors a year who generate a healthy small-town tourism budget.

If the state truly is concerned with tourism promotion, it would spend at least $4.3 million annually — not a paltry $2.3 million — without being forced to do so by RFRA.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.