By Nick Reynolds
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER — Wyoming’s tourism industry accounted for $3.8 billion in in-state spending last year, according to a report from the Wyoming Office of Tourism released Monday.
Adjusted for inflation, Wyoming has experienced an annual 2.5 percent increase in tourism spending since 2007 and, in the past year, has outperformed national visitation averages compiled by the United States Travel Association.
However, visitor spending growth – while significant – lagged behind national figures compiled by the same group, which cited a 5.8 percent increase in domestic traveler spending since 2017.
The study, conducted by Portland-based Dean Runyan Associates, offers a comprehensive look at Wyoming’s tourism industry, examining travel spending, employment levels and tax implications stemming from the state’s tourism industry for each of Wyoming’s 23 counties.
“Throughout 2018, Wyoming’s tourism industry maintained its excellence in welcoming visitors with the state’s beautiful scenery and innovative events,” Diane Shober, executive director for the Wyoming Office of Tourism, said in a statement. “Our research highlights successes from the Wyoming Office of Tourism, local lodging tax boards and private businesses.”
Last year’s numbers mark a 23 percent improvement from inflation-adjusted tourism spending in 2008, a significant improvement for a sector that has averaged growth of 3.7 percent annually over the past 11 years.
Much of the benefit was seen in Teton County, which – at $1.23 billion — accounted for nearly one-third of all tourism money spent in Wyoming last year. Park County ($460.4 million), Laramie County ($372.6 million) and Natrona County ($295.2 million) were the next-highest locations for tourism spending.
However Converse County, which took in $65.7 million from tourism last year, demonstrated the largest improvement over the last decade, surpassing Teton County with a growth rate of 6.1 percent over the past decade.
The impacts of tourist spending are significant not just for the health of the local economy, but for residents as well. According to a news release from Casper’s tourism office, Visit Casper, tourist spending accounted for 8 percent of all sales tax collections in Natrona County (equating to roughly $447 in tax savings per household) while supporting 5 percent of all of Natrona County’s private sector employment. In places like Teton County, tax savings can be even more significant – equivalent to nearly $7,000 in tax savings per household, according to the report.
“Travel matters,” Brooke Kaufman, CEO of Visit Casper, said in a statement. “Without the 852,500 overnight visitors we welcomed in Natrona County last year, we would be missing $295.2 million in travel spend in our county. Those are big numbers in a city of nearly 60,000.”
Specific events appear to have an effect as well. In 2017, when Casper became the nerve center for thousands of international travelers looking to glimpse a total solar eclipse, total tourism spending jumped by $16 million over the previous year, before falling by $6 million in 2018.
The report also shows a significant amount of out-of-staters spending money on commodities that state lawmakers have long been reluctant to tax, including lodging, which amounted to $1.9 billion in spending in 2018, and motor fuel, of which 32 percent sold was purchased by out-of-state travelers.
Monday’s numbers come after a 2019 legislative session where the state’s tourism office became a central focus of the state’s fiscally conservative legislature, which has long sought a means to move the office off the state’s general fund through methods like a statewide lodging tax. Lawmakers defeated an attempt to pass a lodging tax that would have funded tourism efforts.
At present, 30 other states – including several of Wyoming’s neighbors – spend more money on tourism and promotion than Wyoming does.