The mood toward tourism in Asheville may be shifting toward the positive, according to a new survey presented at the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s annual planning session March 25.
The daylong event brought together members of the BCTDA, the Tourism Product Development Fund Committee and other tourism leaders at the Inn on Biltmore to discuss the upcoming fiscal year. Presenters included Explore Asheville President and CEO Vic Isley and Wendy Smith, a professor of management at the University of Delaware.
The survey, conducted in January and February, asked a random sample of 382 people living in Asheville and Buncombe County — a smaller sample than the 468 people who completed a similar survey in 2019 — to share their views on local tourism and its impact on the community. The majority of respondents were full-time residents who had lived in the area an average of 18 years. (Full survey results are available at avl.mx/bez.)
The results were presented by Chris Davidson, who oversees the travel insights and strategy division at Missouri-based tourism marketing company MMGY Global. “The first point I would make is that there’s a lot of good news,” he said.
Of those surveyed, 69% agreed that the positives of local tourism outweighed the negatives. Roughly 83% of people agreed or somewhat agreed that tourism was beneficial to the community. And 80% of respondents said that they believe that tourism advertising dollars fuel the local economy.
Moreover, negative sentiments regarding area tourism appear to have ebbed since 2019. While 88% of respondents in 2019 agreed that the area’s parking problems were caused by visitors, just 76% agreed with the same claim this year. Another 74% agreed that Asheville’s traffic problems were due to the number of people visiting the area, down from 85% in 2019. And while 65% of residents in 2019 believed that they couldn’t enjoy the city and its amenities because of visitors, only 45% said that they agreed with that viewpoint in 2022. Davidson suggested those results may reflect a reduction in people visiting Asheville during the pandemic.
Some questions that were asked only in this year’s survey revealed that some negative attitudes remain. About 68% of respondents said that they believed Buncombe County’s economy is too dependent upon tourism, the same percentage that felt short-term rentals for visitors leave fewer housing options for year-round residents. And 53% of those surveyed said that tourism contributes to the loss of green space and damages the environment.
“There’s a natural tension that exists in this idea of serving the needs of visitors to our community and serving the needs of its residents in terms of quality of life and other factors,” Davidson explained.
While respondents may have become more tolerant of tourism, they were less convinced of the need for the TDA itself. Around 80% of survey respondents said they believed that visitors would continue to come to Buncombe County even if the area stopped all tourism advertising, up from 73% in 2019.
That change in opinion may be driven by recent experience: While the TDA’s marketing expenses for the last six months of 2020 were over 55% lower than those for the same period in 2019, year-over-year room sales for those months decreased just 11%. But Davidson said that states that had reduced or stopped their tourism advertising, such as Colorado and Connecticut, had experienced dramatic losses in revenue and visitation.
Occupancy tax revenue expected to reach record high
Attitudes toward the local tourism business may be changing, but business itself continues to grow apace. During a board meeting held March 24, the BCTDA Finance Committee forecast occupancy tax revenues of $40.8 million for fiscal year 2022-23 — 12% over the $36.4 million projected for the current fiscal year.
That projection is itself about 34% higher than the roughly $27.2 million in occupancy tax revenue the TDA expected at the start of the fiscal year. Vacation rentals, which have experienced 180% growth since fiscal year 2018-19, make up roughly 34% of all revenues.
By law, the BCTDA must spend 75% of its occupancy tax revenues on tourism marketing and 25% on its Tourism Product Development Fund, which provides grants to capital projects that drive new overnight visits. BCTDA spokesperson Kathi Peterson says the authority plans to reopen applications for grants from the fund, which currently sits at $11.6 million.
The first round of grant applications is due Wednesday, June 1. Materials will be available at the end of April, and an information session will be held Wednesday, May 4. The TDA will make funding decisions at its October 2022 board meeting, with grant contracts going out in November and December.