The number of out-of-town folks checking out the Omaha scene has climbed for the ninth year in a row, and the dollars travelers spend also is on the rise.

A study done by Tourism Economics for the local convention and visitor’s bureau shows the visitor count in 2018 topping 13 million.

That’s an annual growth of 3.5%, which is faster than the average 1.9% growth of the last five years. Included in the numbers are guests coming for business meetings, conventions, sporting events, leisure travel and visits to family.

While here, the tourists spent $1.3 billion, marking 4.3% growth over the previous year and also outpacing the five-year 2.8% average.

Deborah Ward, a spokeswoman for Visit Omaha, the local convention and visitors bureau, said the analysis by the Oxford Economics company covers Douglas County and was gleaned from hotels, airline, gas tax and other 2018 information.

She sees the findings as a testament to how the Omaha area has grown and developed its fun side.

“I credit that growth to the caliber of the experience you now have,” Ward said. “The quality of our live performances, the quality of our attractions. ... Living here, we kind of take those things for granted.”

An earlier survey released in 2017 asked guests where they visited. Ward said the rankings went like this: the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, Old Market, Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, downtown convention center and arena now known as the CHI Health Center, Durham Museum, Children’s Museum, Joslyn Art Museum, Lauritzen Gardens.

She noted ongoing work to improve tourist magnets, including a combined $1.3 billion going into the airport and downtown riverfront area, and the zoo’s $27.5 million sea lion exhibit set to open next year.

Tourism is important to local residents, Ward said, for reasons including the jobs it creates and dollars it saves households.

Consider these other highlights from the report released Monday:

  • Tourist/visitor activity last year sustained 17,826 jobs, both directly and indirectly. Tourism is the city’s eighth largest private sector employer.
  • Tax revenue generated by tourism spending reportedly saved each Omaha household $750 in annual taxes. (That’s the additional amount the household would have had to pay to maintain current government services if tourism went away.)
  • Of the 13.1 million visitors last year, about 5.7 million stayed overnight, while 7.4 million were daytime guests.
  • Of the $1.3 billion tourism dollars spent, $836 million came from those who stayed overnight and $471 million came from day guests.
  • A quarter of the tourist dollar is spent on food and drinks; another quarter is spent on retail; nearly 20% is spent on hotels; 15% on transportation; and 15% on recreation.
  • Visitor spending on recreation grew 5.6% in 2018, above its five-year average of 4%. Visitor spending at hotels grew by 3.5% last year, rebounding from a near-flat 2017.
  • Visitor spending since 2014 increased by $170 million, with nearly one-third of that increase coming from retail purchases. Local transportation spending grew by $15 million since 2014, with 90% of that increase just in 2018 as gas prices shot up.

A recap of the Henry Doorly Zoo's arrivals and departures in 2019

2019 arrivals and departures from the Omaha zoo

  • Tax revenue generated by tourist spending totaled $286 million. That’s $122 million collected in federal taxes, $83 million in state taxes and $81 million in local taxes. In all, that’s up from $268 million two years earlier.

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