“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 avl.mx/bez.)
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.