|By Brandon C. Baker, The News-Herald,
Willoughby, OhioMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sept. 15, 2011--Despite the ongoing discussion about the ailing aspects of Ohio's economy, one area has been improving in recent years.
The Ohio Department of Development's Tourism Division earlier this year revealed that the state's tourism economy grew by about 7 percent in 2010 and generated about $38 billion in total sales.
Figures for this year won't be available until months into 2012, but officials believe they'll see a similar improvement, aided by what was seemingly a busy summer for many of the attractions in the region and state.
"The anecdotal reports from industry colleagues around the state are that visitation for the most part was either the same as or slightly higher than last year," said Amir Eylon, Ohio's state tourism director. "That's actually pretty good, considering the soggy spring we had, and then shifted to late-summer (type) weather in June.
"So, when you saw zoos and attractions and outdoors-based activities that are weather dependent reporting slow first and second quarters, they really picked up in the summer months."
Bob Ulas, executive director of the Lake County Visitors Bureau, agreed, singling out the county's wineries and unique attractions like the Garfield Home in Mentor.
"Our winery district, it's just booming," he said.
"The more I talk to the vineyard people, the more impressed and overwhelmed I am of the draw they're getting. It's people pulling off (Interstate) 90, from far, distant places, even people from Canada."
Since the Visitors Bureau is mostly funded through the county's hotel occupancy tax, Ulas keeps a close eye on the figure. It's also a useful gauge in determining the county's tourism economy.
Year-to-date bed tax revenue, which reflects sales through July, totals nearly $475,000. That amount is 11.6 percent better than the $424,913 the county's hotels brought in by this point in 2010. It's an improvement, but Ulas noted that 2010 was one of the worst bed-tax years in "our history of record keeping."
"I wish it would be more, but we're still concerned with the economy and the lack of new hotel development in Lake County," he said.
"The competition is tough. We're up against large and small destinations. We're up against roller coasters, covered bridges, Cleveland, the Amish.
"The challenge is to get people to pull off (I-) 90 or plan their vacation and stop in Lake County."
The Visitors Bureau has amped up its advertising and social media efforts in the past year to do its part in attracting more visitors to area events.
Eylon describes Ohio tourism as a "resilient" industry, pointing out that it sustained about 1 in every 11 jobs, or 8.7 percent of the state's workforce in 2010. He said the Northeast Ohio region is as big a contributor to those figures as any.
"The seven counties along Lake Erie are accountable for more than a quarter of the tourism in Ohio," he said.
Eylon believes spending per person at various attractions is on the rise.
That was not the case in 2009, during the height of the recession.
He said the state was "great for the three-, four-, and five-hour drive markets," but that those visitors weren't spending as much at festivals, amusement parks and museum gift shops.
Eylon tries to exemplify that point with his lighthearted, "elephant ear theory."
"Pre-recession, in '06 or '07, a family of four would go to a festival and maybe mom buys each kid an elephant ear," he said.
"In a recession, they would still go because it's free or low cost, but now mom is buying one elephant ear and breaking it in half. (In 2011), mom's now back to buying more elephant ears."
Ulas said visitors mean a lot to Lake County.
"They generate over $500 million, in our most recent study, over a year, and about I think about $17 million in taxes. "So, the visitor economy helps infuse the tax coffers, creates jobs, fills hotel rooms and contributes to the economy."
(c)2011 The News-Herald (Willoughby, Ohio)
Visit The News-Herald (Willoughby, Ohio) at www.news-herald.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services