Maryland Tourism Budget Questioned

OCEAN CITY — On the eve of another Springfest weekend and the cusp of another summer season, a high ranking Maryland tourism official told resort business leaders this week they would likely have to continue going it on their own in terms of advertising and marketing Ocean City.

Mary Jo McCullough, outgoing president of the Maryland Tourism Council and the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association, addressed the town’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) on Wednesday and told resort business leaders the state’s budget for marketing tourist destinations in Maryland will likely continue to dwindle despite the obvious return on the investment.

Maryland’s tourism marketing budget peaked out around $7 million annually just a few years ago, but was dwindled to as low as $2.5 million this year.

McCullough, who has been involved in tourism in Maryland for over two decades, said there was a time when state officials realized the return on the tourism spending investment. In recent years, however, Maryland has directed its funding elsewhere.

“Former House Speaker Cas Taylor envisioned $1 million a year in growth in tourism marketing in Maryland,” she said. “If his dream came true, we would be at $17 million by now. Of course, it didn’t and we’re at $2.5 million and headed in the wrong direction.”

McCullough said the state’s tourism marketing budget hit $6 million in 2000 and stayed at that level until 2007 when it nudged up closer to $7 million. In the years since, however, it has steadily declined. McCullough said the shrinking tourism marketing budget has made it difficult for Maryland to compete with other states.

“Pennsylvania has a $35 million budget and Virginia’s is $17 million,” she said. “How are we supposed to compete with that?”

The ongoing recession and growing state deficit has forced state lawmakers to dump just about every source of revenue into the general fund, money that has been traditionally reinvested in the source from which it was derived.

“The counties collect over $100 million in lodging taxes, yet none of that goes back into tourism,” said McCullough. “The amusement tax is even higher, but that is not even considered to be returned.”

EDC President Michael James pointed out it has been proven a reinvestment of tourism dollars back into marketing guarantees an multiplying affect, but the concept is lost on many state leaders.

“When we talk about marketing dollars, it’s not like we’re looking for a handout,” he said. “There have been studies that have shown each dollar invested in tourism marketing comes back at a ratio of 14:1 or 23:1. One study had it as high as 37:1.”

James said the state government could learn a lesson from the private sector when it comes to marketing.

“They need to run the government like a business,” he said. “When business is bad, we advertise more. It works. It’s been proven.”

McCullough said state lawmakers considered many bills during the session that threatened to enhance Maryland’s growing reputation of being not business friendly, some of which passed, but many didn’t.

“This year’s legislature had some of the worst anti-business bills I’ve ever seen,” she said. “Luckily, most of them were killed. I don’t think the government understands small business is affected by the recession just as much.”

McCullough said the current administration in Annapolis doesn’t appreciate tourism.

“Tourism gets little respect in the governor’s office, but we put more people to work, are a much larger part of the economy and contribute more to the tax base than many other industries in the state,” she said. “I guess it just isn’t as sexy as biotech, for example.”