TDA discusses tourism ‘paradox’ at annual meeting

PROS AND CONS: Explore Asheville President CEO Vic Isley led the Sept. 22 event that explored tourisms benefits as well as drawbacks. Photo by Brooke Randle

“Paradox” was the theme of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s annual meeting Sept. 22, which featured several presentations on the costs and benefits of Asheville’s increased visitations. 

The meeting drew roughly 200 attendees from a range of  tourism-related professions and was led by Explore Asheville’s President and CEO Vic Isley. The event included presentations from Asheville artist Jenny Pickins, Delaware-based academic and writer Wendy K. Smith and Stewart Colovin, vice president of MMGY Global Brand Strategy.

Speaking on the theme, each presenter acknowledged both Asheville’s economic success as a regional tourism destination as well as long-standing concerns of some residents regarding the environmental, infrastructure and social strains that the industry places on the city. Earlier this year, BCTDA conducted a survey of 382 people living in Asheville or Buncombe County — a smaller sample than the 468 people who completed a similar survey in 2019 — to gather community sentiment on local tourism and its impacts.

Of those surveyed, 69% agreed that the positives of local tourism outweigh the negatives. Roughly 83% of people agreed or somewhat agreed that tourism was beneficial to the community. But 68% of respondents also said that they believed Buncombe County’s economy is too dependent upon tourism. And 53% of those surveyed said that tourism contributes to the loss of green space and damages the environment. (Full survey results are available at 

While the speakers did not offer specific solutions for how the BCTDA could address the costs associated with increased visitors, the discussion represented a shift in tone from the quasi-governmental agency, whose board members have responded defensively in the past to criticism of the entity and the effects of tourism. 

“We know there are many perspectives and there’s a lot of passion in this community. But how do we harness that in a way that we can move forward on the majority of what we agree on?” Isley said. “We’re sitting here as a community and part of a region where we’re dealing with the challenges of success. But I would much rather be in a community and a place where we’re dealing with the challenges of success than being in a community that is atrophying.” 

During her presentation, Isley also noted that visitor spending in Buncombe County has rebounded from the pandemic — reaching $2.6 billion in 2021. She said that Buncombe County was ranked second in the state for visitor spending, following Mecklenburg County, which contains the city of Charlotte, which drew $4.1 billion. 

Isley also noted new legislation passed by the N. C. General Assembly this summer that changes the disbursement criteria of Buncombe County’s occupancy tax, which is managed by the BCTDA. The law, which was first implemented in 1983, previously required that 75% of the occupancy tax collected from overnight stays in Buncombe County be spent on tourism advertising, with the remaining 25% going to tourism-based capital investments. 

The newly revised law changes the respective allocations for advertising and capital spending to 66% and 33%, respectively, and expands the allowable uses of capital spending to include maintenance and infrastructure. The BCTDA is expected to bring in roughly $40.8 million in occupancy tax revenue this year. The new split will increase the amount spent on maintenance and infrastructure from $10.2 million to $13.6 million.

“For those who may think, ‘Oh, that was easy,’ and ‘That should have been done a long time ago,’ no occupancy tax [law] has changed in the state of North Carolina since 2017,” Isley said.

Later in the meeting, the BCTDA posthumously awarded writer, historian and environmentalist Wilma Dykeman with the William A.V. Cecil Leadership Award, which honors those who have made contributions to tourism in Asheville and Buncombe County. Outgoing BCTDA board member and Highland Brewing president and CEO Leah Ashburn was also acknowledged for her work with the board. Ashburn has served on the board since 2016, with her final term expiring this fall. BCTDA Chair Kathleen Mosher said that a vacation rental owner or vacation rental company owner will be appointed to the vacant seat.


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13 thoughts on “TDA discusses tourism ‘paradox’ at annual meeting

  1. R.G.

    Those survey results are highly questionable, given the small sample size (among other skewed data). I believe the TDA needs more diversity on its board. They could benefit from perspective/reality checks from longtime community members who see/understand the big picture but who may or may not benefit financially from tourism.

    • Justin

      The sample size is similar to the bond referendum survey that the County conducted around the same time:
      With Impact Research, the Trust for Public Land conducted a public opinion poll of more than 400 Buncombe County respondents between April 7 and 12, 2022. In that poll, 71% of respondents were in favor of authorizing $30 million to pay the capital costs of acquisition and improvement of land for conservation and protection of natural resources, preservation of farmland, and the development of greenways and trails for recreation purposes.

  2. Taxpayer

    Paradox isn’t the word I’d use. Just stop. We don’t need more tourists. We’re overrun and drowning as it is.

  3. SpareChange

    It’s a tourism booster organization, so of course they are going to spin any survey results in whatever manner serves those ends. 69% said that the positives of tourism outweigh the negatives, but that is a result which needs to be understood against the reality of tourism being by far the dominant economic game in the region. Respondents will intuitively reflect on the fact that if the tourism industry suddenly dried up, it would be an economic disaster.

    It’s roughly equivalent to asking people in a Banana Republic, who are singularly dependent on the banana crop, “Are we better or worse off growing bananas?” Absent something to replace the bananas, they are better off with them. But it does not mean people approve of the status quo, much less want to see more bananas planted.

    More significant is the result showing that an equal number also said that the economy is too dependent on tourism. So objectively the logical take-away should be to simply sustain tourism, while putting most TDA resources into efforts which will serve to diversify the economy. That of course is not their mission, and that of course will not happen. Instead, they will interpret the results in a way which justifies their just planting more “bananas.”

    • Mike R.

      Some astute observations; especially on diversifying the economy…not.
      The TDA is part of Raleigh’s master plan to sell and develop western North Carolina. NCDOT is playing a big role too, widening local roads that locals don’t want widened, I-26, etc. And the Asheville Airport is another key aspect. In these respects, Asheville is just a prostitute city for the state to achieve it’s growth aims.
      But tourism and retirement are the main sources of money in this town.

      America’s economic structure is in deep, deep trouble. Massive asset bubbles, record deficits and debt. Absurd housing prices. All of this will work until it doesn’t. When the housing bubble bursts and the tourism dries up Asheville will be in for a tough ride.

    • Curious

      I’m curious as to your thoughts on what economic drivers/industries you would suggest replace tourism? And how would you make that happen? Am I correct that when a new industry, Pratt and Whitney, was recruited, there was opposition to that? This is a real question. What industries, in addition to brewing, can be enticed here? (And the brewing industries bring “beer tourism,” so doesn’t that compound the problem?)

  4. Robert

    Who better than our own Mayor Manheimer to question these survey results? See below from a recent Mountain Xpress piece and simply replace the word ‘crime’ with ‘tourism’.
    Crime statistics don’t provide the full picture of crime in a city.

    “What I’ve learned over the years is you can apparently slice and dice crime data however you’d like,” Manheimer said. “You can take five-year snapshots, ten-year snapshots, one-year, year-over-year.”

  5. MV

    And someone should really do a carbon footprint study. What are the environmental costs of so many people driving and flying here to drink beer?

  6. Richard B.

    The Asheville Tourism issue, if it really exists – that is, impacting the region negatively, – is being solved.
    The current Democratic entities running the city and county, – mayor, city council, and commissioners, – are doing
    a marvelous job of making the problem go away.
    We are no longer Asheville Symphony season pass holders. We no longer take our visiting family and friends into town
    to take in the ambience, eateries, and excitement that USED to be downtown Asheville.
    Why? Everyone knows why, yet those running the place prefer to gaze beyond the mess they have made and continue to create
    with profound beatitudes on reparations, housing for the homeless, social worker crisis teams to replace the police presence who have
    been defunded and denounced and now cannot get qualified law enforcement officers.
    The town is a mess. It is dangerous anytime of the day and night. The homeless are in charge of the streets with their
    drug deals, open toileting behaviors, intimidating behaviors. You can go for what seems like a long time before anyone resembling
    law enforcement is sighted.
    It is sad. It did not have to happen.

  7. NFB

    The TDA could earn itself a ton of good will if it would just support changes to the law to allow a portion of room tax to go to the city and county to help them deal with many of the issues tourism both entities have to deal with. Its consistent and adament refusal to do so is why so many in the community believe that it holds all us local yokels in such contempt, which it does.

  8. Local Grandad

    The lion share of concern over tourism, seems more aptly attributed to concern over growth. Yes, tourism brings hotels but every great American City has hotels. Yes, tourism brings a crowded sidewalk or river on the weekend, but it also brings real and growing income to the retailers, restaurants and artists that make this town what we value as locals. Yes , tourism burdens infrastructure but it also returns millions of dollars in greenways, trail systems, festivals, ballparks (The WAVE!), and quality of life amenities that we celebrate and that our city cannot afford on its own. This is clearly the paradox the writer was trying to convey. The recent % increase in local investment seems to be celebrated by all sides – including the TDA. The outrage on this topic has become equally silly IMHO. We have better and much bigger things to work on.

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