State lawmakers tour attractions in Laurel Highlands, Westmoreland County
The transportation-themed Lincoln Highway Experience museum in Unity played host Thursday to a group of special visitors: Members of the Pennsylvania House Tourism and Recreational Development Committee, who are on a tour of Laurel Highlands attractions.
The committee leaders, Republican Chairman David Millard, of Bloomsburg, and Democratic Chairman Mark Longietti, of Mercer County, agreed that Pennsylvania has plenty of such prime attractions that can draw in tourists and their dollars.
The state just has to do a better job of letting potential visitors know about them, they said.
“It used to be we spent about $30 million per year to attract tourists,” Longietti said. “That’s been whittled all the way down to $4 million as a result of tough budgets.”
To help restore some of that lost funding, state lawmakers last year passed Act 109, which requires booking agents to collect and remit hotel occupancy tax on the “accommodation fee,” which is an amount charged by the agent in excess of the basic room charge.
“The booking sites were not applying the hotel occupancy tax to the entire price,” Longietti said. “That legislation closed that loophole.”
He estimated the broadened tax guidelines should boost the state’s tourism marketing dollars to $20 million or more.
Pennsylvania will have to catch up to some other states that have focused more resources on marketing campaigns.
Millard cited those of Virginia, New York and Michigan as particularly effective.
“We want to make sure those areas know that Pennsylvania welcomes them into our commonwealth,” he said.
“We’ve been growing our tourism industry, but we’ve also been losing market share because we stopped investing in the marketing,” Longietti said.
It’s an investment well worth making, Longietti said. He cited a study commissioned by the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association that indicates Pennsylvania realizes $3.43 in tax revenue for every dollar it spends marketing the state’s attractions.
“As tourists stop, they spend money,” Millard said. “Those dollars equate to tax dollars that support other things across the commonwealth.”
Employment in the tourism, hotel and restaurant industries also benefit, he noted.
Longietti said the plan is for state officials to not only invest more in tourism marketing but to invest wisely. That includes using social media to drive people to the state’s tourism website.
“We want to use all available technology to reach the 21st century traveler and highlight some of the wonderful assets that Pennsylvania has,” he said.
State tourism representatives recently filmed footage in the Laurel Highlands that will be included in upcoming marketing campaigns for winter sports, said Anna Weltz, director of public relations and community outreach for the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, which organized the tour.
Tourism ranks second behind agriculture as the state’s leading industry.
“But we think it’s pretty darn close between the two,” said Weltz.
According to the latest available figures, travelers spent $1.822 billion in the Laurel Highlands in 2017, marking a 3.5% increase from 2016 and the second-highest amount on record since the $1.837 billion spent in 2014.
Based at Seven Springs, the legislative committee began Thursday’s itinerary with a visit to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County and stopped at Fort Ligonier before visiting the Lincoln Highway museum.
They were scheduled to finish the day with stops at the Fred Rogers Center on the Saint Vincent College campus and the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.
They plan to tour Fallingwater on Friday.
“What were seeing is the benefit of the dollars we invested in marketing tourism,” Millard said.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .