Nebraska has fallen behind most other states in its efforts to attract out-of-state tourists and placed last in a recent national ranking of locations people would like to visit, according to a state’s tourism commission report.
The Nebraska Tourism Commission offered a blunt assessment of its situation in a budget request last week to lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts, who frequently note that tourism is the state’s third-largest industry.
The commission said it faces “a significant competitive disadvantage” compared to its peers in other states, and its $6.5 million budget is less than half of the $13.1 million national median for tourism agencies.
Nebraska finished in last place in the 2016-17 “Portrait of the American Traveler” ranking of places people would like to vacation, the report said. The state also fared poorly in key factors that are known to drive out-of-state visits — ad awareness, familiarity with the state as a tourism spot and likelihood of vacationing in Nebraska.
“It’s a signal to me that we have to present the state and invite people here in a different way,” said John Ricks, the Nebraska Tourism Commission’s new director.
Tourism officials hope to fight the perception of Nebraska as a flat, boring flyover state with no appeal to outsiders.
The commission is seeking permission to access an additional $500,000 annually from a cash fund generated by the state’s one percent lodging tax, which is imposed on hotels to help promote tourism. The money is already in the fund, so lawmakers wouldn’t have to approve new spending. However, lawmakers have drawn money from such funds in recent years to help balance the state budget.
Nebraska has traditionally been an underdog compared to other states with bigger tourism budgets, and allowing the commission to access more of the lodging tax would help it generate more interest in the state, said Roger Jasnoch, director of the Kearney Visitors Bureau.
“Certainly, when you have states that have two or three times the budget we have, we are at a disadvantage,” said Jasnoch, who also serves on the tourism commission.
Ricks said the additional money would help pay for research and promotions targeted at key out-of-state areas, which in turn would draw more visitors and generate additional tax revenue for the agency. He said the cash fund has grown by roughly 6.5 percent annually.
Nebraska is faring much better with in-state tourists, thanks in part to the increasingly popular Nebraska Passport program, Ricks said.
The program encourages residents to visit “passport stops” throughout the state, where they collect stamps and qualify for prizes. Roughly 3,500 people submitted prize entry sheets this year, shattering last year’s record of 1,292 and blowing past the 452 people who participated in 2014.
Ricks said the passport program has exceeded expectations but argued that the commission also needs to concentrate on out-of-state visitors, who tend to stay longer and spend more on their trips.
“There’s been a lot of money spent for in-state tourism,” Ricks said. “I call that singing to the choir. Nebraskans love the state and they want to travel it.”
Last year, he said the commission launched television and billboard ads in the Des Moines, Kansas City, Denver and Springfield, Missouri, markets, and saw an uptick in web traffic and requests for visitor’s guides from those areas.
“If you invite the right people, with the right message, at the right time, and they’ll come,” he said. “If we put money into the correct markets, we can interest people in coming here.”
A spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts said the administration will review all agency budget requests as they prepare for next year’s session.
“It is important to note that the governor has been urging state agencies to exercise fiscal restraint on an ongoing basis,” said Taylor Gage, the governor’s director of strategic communications.
Whether the request succeeds will depend on a variety of factors, including the state’s expected tax collections and competing requests from other state agencies, said Sen. John Stinner of Gering. Stinner, the chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said it’s too early to tell whether the committee will deem the issue a priority.
“Everything’s on the table at this point,” he said. “All of this has to be analyzed together.”