Earlier this month the Governor’s Office issued a press release proclaiming that visitors to Virginia generate $20.4 billion in revenue in 2011, an 8% increase over the previous year, supporting 207,000 jobs and contributing more than $1.32 billion in state and local taxes.
This news was lapped up and regurgitated by TV and newspaper outlets around the state. Governors offices over successive administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have been disseminating this kind of self-congratulatory fluff for as long as I have been practicing journalism in Virginia (which has been a very long time), and the news media has repeated it uncritically for just as long.
What annoyed me this time was a statement attributed to Rita McClenny, interim CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corporation (VTO): “The support that we’ve received from the Governor’s administration and the General Assembly has been essential to keeping tourism strong – especially during challenging economic times. This new economic impact data shows that the investment is paying off and that Virginia’s tourism industry is headed in the right direction.” (My emphasis.)
What McClenny does, with the sanction of the McDonnell administration, is imply a causal connection between spending by the state tourism office and the increase in travel revenue in Virginia. Is such a conclusion justified? Not by the evidence contained in the press release.
First, it so happens that gasoline purchases constituted 24% of total travel costs in 2011, according to VTO’s own “Travel Profile to Virginia” research. The average price of gasoline (all grades) increased 26% between 2010 and 2011, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. Thus, simple arithmetic implies that roughly three quarters of that 8% increase in travel spending can be attributed to the higher cost of gasoline — credit for which can in no way be attributed to the state’s tourism initiatives.
Second, one key number we don’t see in the press release is the number of visitors to Virginia. An even more important number we don’t see is the number of visitors to the Old Dominion from outside the state, the sole relevant metric in judging the performance of the Virginia Tourism Office. Did the number of visitors increase? Did it decrease? We don’t know for sure.
However, anecdotal information suggests that the number of visitors has not grown. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation reports that roughly 1.7 million guests visited the Historic Area in 2011, “roughly as many as the year before.” Colonial Williamsburg is the state’s largest single attraction. Likewise, the number of visitors to Monticello was reported in December 2011 to have been “relatively stable” over the past five years.
Third, according to the aforementioned Travel Profile to Virginia, the primary purpose of 48% of all trips is to visit family/friends. Needless to say, that includes a large number of Virginians visiting family and friends in other parts of the state. I, for example, visit my mother in Fredericksburg, my father and step-mother in Hampton Roads and my brother in Berryville — each destination being more than 50 miles away, enough to be counted under the state’s methodology. I was not swayed by VTO advertising and marketing, which I never saw, and neither were other Virginia travelers visiting their families.
Another 9% of all travel is classified as “business-general,” and 6% as “personal business,” which are not influenced by Virginia Tourism Office marketing either.
That leaves about one-third of all travel trips falling under the classifications of outdoor recreation, entertainment/sightseeing and other pleasure/personal and convention/trade show. Many of those trips are comprised of Virginians visiting other destinations in Virginia. What percentage hailed from outside the state, we don’t know. All we can state for certain is that the state “investment” in “keeping tourism strong” influences some fraction of 33% of travelers and that it is ludicrous to imply that tourism marketing deserves credit for an 8% increase in travel.
I’m not saying that the state’s investment in tourism is a bad investment. I’m saying we don’t know what impact that spending has — and it is disingenuous to pretend that we do. We need less rah-rah cheerleading and more real analysis.