Douglas County tourism hits billion-dollar milestone

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Posted: Sunday, June 30, 2013 12:00 am

Perhaps you could tell by the rising number of hotels opening in the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area, or by the proportion of out-of-state license plates pulling into Omaha's world-class zoo.

Another tipoff might have come from talking to visitors like Beth and Justin Thornton, two Mississippi State fans who extended their family's College World Series stay to see places such as the Children's Museum.

Tourism in Douglas County has become a bigger economic engine — with spending from a record number of visitors last year surpassing the $1 billion mark for the first time, according to a new economic impact report prepared for the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Omaha is becoming more of a destination, with big-time events,” City Council President Pete Festersen said. “In addition to the benefit to the economy, the identity and image it creates for our city is priceless.”

The research by Philadelphia-based Tourism Economics shows that after a recession-related plunge in 2009, the local tourism industry steadily rebounded and, in 2012, reached 11.4 million visitors, 4 percent more than the year before. That count includes day, overnight, business and convention guests.

Visitor spending on items such as lodging, shopping, transportation and food grew to $1.025 billion, a 10 percent jump compared with the year before.

Nationally, spending by domestic travelers is expected to increase about 5 percent this year, said Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the U.S. Travel Association.

“Travel has not only been leading our U.S. recovery on a national level, it is clearly having a significant impact on the local level,” Keefe said.

Tourism doesn't just mean a good time for vacationers, either. Consider:

>> Visitor spending in Douglas County generated $132 million in state and local taxes. If that revenue wasn't there, said Christopher Pike, chief economist for Tourism Economics, each county household would have to contribute $655 to maintain the current level of government services.

>> Tourism supports 16,200 jobs in the county, with associated personal income of $490 million, the report says.

>> Visitors drive demand for hotels, and 11 more hotels with 1,851 rooms are either planned or under construction in the metro area, according to Smith Travel Research. That's a 26 percent increase in rooms over 2009 and a 14 percent increase over the existing supply.

If you take into account indirect and induced economic impacts also, the report says, that tourism-related spending in the county generated $1.6 billion in business sales. Travelers, Pike explained, create direct economic value in sectors such as recreation and transportation. Those sectors also buy goods and services, such as utilities, which become an indirect impact. When tourism-related employees spend money, that is called induced impact.

Pike's team based its report on various industry surveys, tax information and other data.

While Omaha tourism spiked in the 2012 spring quarter during high-profile events such as the CWS and U.S. Olympic Swim Trials, Dana Markel of the visitors bureau said she was heartened to see tourism activity stretch throughout the year.

She pointed out that the total overnight visitor stays in 2012 equate to hotel nights of 40 CWS or 50 U.S. Olympic Swim Trials. Visitors come to see the area's growing arts scene, redeveloped midtown, Old Market, sprawling Henry Doorly Zoo and more, she said.

“I'm hoping we can grow beyond thinking it takes an event to come to visit us,” Markel said. “I think we're beyond that; people want to see us.”

One sign of outside interest is the response the visitors bureau received from a coupon book offered as part of its Welcome to the Weekend campaign.

To get the discounts, people must submit a request. In the last five weeks, 2,600 requests came from 44 states, exceeding the 1,400 that coordinators expected throughout the entire six-month campaign that ends in October. The ads were publicized mostly online and on broadcast media in Missouri, Kansas and Iowa.

Among those who have taken advantage of the discount book is the Fielder family of the Kansas City area.

Stephen and his wife, Kelly, were lured by the zoo. Other stops on their trip included the Children's Museum and Amazing Pizza Machine.

An overriding consideration was that the four-hour drive was about the limit for four kids, ages 7 to 2. Plus, it was within a $500 budget, they said.

“I really wanted to see my favorite animal, pink flamingos,” 7-year-old Emily said as she walked toward the zoo.

Overnight trips, according to the study, made up about 43 percent of all Douglas County visitors and 66 percent of tourism spending.

Laura and Jake Maddox of Lincoln, who spent a day at the zoo with their family, represent the larger share of visitors who don't book hotels but spent $343 million last year.

Along with their two little girls, the Maddoxes drove into Omaha last week with Laura's sister, Stephanie Tarpley of Arkansas, who was visiting them with her two boys.

A short eastward drive from the zoo is Council Bluffs, also rich with tourism attractions including casinos, the Loess Hills and the new Tom Hanafan River's Edge Park.

Kathy Fiscus of the Bluffs' Convention and Visitors Bureau, said many visitors come to see the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which connects Omaha to the Bluffs. She said youth sports complexes are a huge draw for out-of-town teams and families, and this year's RAGBRAI bike ride across Iowa begins in Council Bluffs and is expected to draw as many as 25,000 on a July weekend.

Visitor spending in Pottawattamie County, Fiscus said, should handily surpass last year's $290 million.

“The weather is not as hot and dry, and spring came late so there is pent-up demand,” she said.

A goal of the Omaha visitors bureau is to increase out-of-town visitors such as the Thorntons, who stay in hotels and on average bring in more revenue than day visitors.

The Thorntons, alumni of Mississippi State, came at the last minute to watch their team finish the CWS. The decision came on a Friday. The flight with 2-year-old Sydney and 6-month-old Amelia was on Sunday. And the family stayed through Thursday to soak up local attractions.

Still wearing maroon-and-white Bulldog backer shirts, the couple spent hours at the Children's Museum, looking at the bugs exhibit and helping their little ones build a bee hive.

“It's crazy coming last minute with two little kids,” Beth said. “But it was fun.”

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