Himanshu Karvir, the vice chair of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority and CEO of Virtelle Hospitality, has had enough. During a Nov. 20 meeting of the quasi-governmental agency, he said he was tired of news reports, op-eds and social media posts that paint the BCTDA, as well as tourism as a whole, in a bad light.
“It’s taken a long, slow beating that has finally made me write this. This constant barrage of negative opinions posted online,” Karvir said, reading from prepared notes. “We have been putting out data and information [about] how much it benefits Buncombe County residents on lowering their property taxes; we highlight $44 million in investments we make in our community.” To doubters in the community, he went on, “Those numbers don’t matter.”
Karvir said he was primarily responding to a Nov. 15 op-ed by activist and blogger Ami Worthen published in the Citizen Times. In the piece, Worthen calls for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to stop collecting the 6% tax on county lodging that funds tourism advertising and tourism-related community projects and urges the abolition of the tourism agency. Worthen cites increased gentrification, environmental and infrastructure impacts and a lack of accountability for TDA officials as reasons to eliminate the authority.
During nearly 20 minutes of remarks, transcribed in full at avl.mx/6qf, Karvir said he took “great offense” to the commentary and disputed each of Worthen’s points. He pointed to the agency’s limited, state-imposed mandate for occupancy tax spending and argued that tourism was not responsible for environmental degradation. He also noted that Buncombe County provides thorough oversight of the agency’s activities.
“Our meetings are public; our agenda is public; our budget is public; there’s an attorney sitting here to make sure that we stay in our guidelines, the legislative mandate,” Karvir said. “To me, there are real checks and balances here, and if there is something that even looks like it’s out, we have board members that bring it up. So again, this opinion that is posted here is not based on any reality.”
Karvir attributed the challenges outlined in the op-ed, such as gentrification and aging infrastructure, to local government policies and neglect. He also claimed that the local media feed a negative narrative about the TDA by using “divisive headlines” and not publishing data and news stories that portray the positive impacts of the agency and tourism in the community.
“In my opinion, there are no problems with the TDA. The problems lie elsewhere. The problems lies in the opinions like [Worthen’s]. The problem lies with individuals that have nothing to do with our industry and have no idea how hotels operate, how the TDA operates and what the occupancy tax does for our community,” Karvir said. “[The media are] actively posting negative tourism stories on known Facebook pages that are active on anti-tourism and actively soliciting comments. And I get all that stuff, but I think the problem lies there.”
TDA Chair Gary Froeba described Karvir’s comments as “a big wow” but agreed that the board should seek more control of the tourism narrative. News stories, activist efforts and community voices, he said, too often raise concerns about the negative aspects of tourism without highlighting the TDA’s positive contributions.
“We’re tired of being beaten up and we’re gonna start pushing back, just like [Karvir] has shown today,” Froeba said. “We have to stand up for our industry. We’re not a bad industry — we’re a good industry and we have to support [Explore Asheville President and CEO] Stephanie [Brown] and her team. … We can’t let them get pummeled like they’re getting pummeled. It’s just not fair to them and it’s not fair to us.”
Editor’s note: The original headline for this story, TDA board members push back on negative tourism views, was changed at 5:38 p.m. on Nov. 21.