The shift in thinking among island leaders about Galveston tourism is encouraging and shows the city has come a long way from the days when any tourist would do and at any cost.
There was a time when Galveston’s approach was more hat in hand, with the underlying assumption that it was lucky to get any dollar by any means, even if it caused headaches to locals. And there was a time when most of the marketing and promotions centered on the beaches and festivals, largely ignoring other aspects of the historic seaport city.
But the tide is turning. City leaders have lately been asking themselves whether the yearly flow of tourists onto the island is reaching a saturation point. They’re also shifting their promotional efforts to focus more on the island’s arts and cultural offerings, along with eco-tourism. The idea is quality versus quantity.
Never has tourism been so strong on the island, and never has there been a more important time for city leaders to understand how to better capitalize on that trend in ways that benefits both the residents who live here and the industry that depends on it.
No one is suggesting the island turn away tourists or that the island shouldn’t appreciate its visitors. Tourism is far too important to the economy to shrug off or discourage. But city officials are right to consider what kind of tourism to promote in a way that lifts all boats.
Galveston’s tourism volume has increased by 60 percent since 2009, up from 4.5 million visitors to about 7.2 million last year, according to the Park Board of Trustees, which promotes tourism.
The figure comes from an economic impact study commissioned by the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau and conducted by Philadelphia-based Tourism Economics. The report shows that tourism in Galveston has increased steadily for the past several years, with visitation growing nearly 30 percent since 2011.
Employment growth in Galveston’s tourism industry is outpacing overall job growth. Since the 2009 unemployment trough, tourism job growth amounts to 24.2 percent compared to 14 percent for total employment, according to the study.
All these visitors, overnight guests and day trippers, spent $872.2 million here in 2018, according to the study. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
That spending generated $1.2 billion in economic activity, according to the study. Additionally, tourism generated $177.2 million in tax revenues in 2018. Tourism-driven state and local tax proceeds of $87.5 million helped offset the average Galveston household tax burden by $4,233, according to the study.
While tourism generated a significant amount of hotel occupancy tax revenue that’s restricted, it also contributed $49.6 million in local tax revenue, accounting for 49.5 percent of the city of Galveston’s General Fund, according to the study.
The economic impact report was presented last week at the fifth annual Tourism Summit held on the island and organized by the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau. More than 500 people from the tourism industry attended the free event.
The time has come to plan for the future and balance the demands of tourists with the needs of residents, Galveston Park Board of Trustees Executive Director Kelly de Schaun said last week at the summit.
“It’s not about increasing the numbers of people,” de Schaun said. “It’s about increasing their spending on the island.”
In the past few years, the park board’s focus has turned to boosting overnight, rather than single-day visitation. People who spend a day on the island spend an average $49 a person, according to park board data. People who stay the night spend an average $115 a person, according to the data.
Industry experts at the summit all agreed the island should do a better job promoting its history and its thriving arts scene.
The beauty of this shift is that it really doesn’t have to cost the island anything, would benefit residents in bringing more discerning tourists who spend more and aren’t here just for a loud party or a T-shirt, and would boost the economy.
Galveston has all the tools it needs to market itself as a destination for culture, said J.P. Bryan, founder of the The Bryan Museum.
“We don’t need to create anything anew,” Bryan said.
• Laura Elder