COMMENTARY: Have you hugged a tourist today?

by Nov 8, 2019OPINIONS





I am as guilty as the next person. I have rolled my eyes and tapped my foot while standing in a long line waiting to be served because the tourists are in town. I have beat my head on the steering wheel as I creeped up Soco Mountain behind out-of-town leaf-lookers. I have gotten aggravated at sharing room at the table and resources at events because there are so many “tourists” around. I have the thoughts of how much easier it would be to get around and do my daily business if there just weren’t so many of “them” in the way.

And then I stop and think what it would be like if those tourists ever decided to not visit Cherokee as a destination. Since the early 1950’s the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has depended on their ability to entertain and attract visitors to the Qualla Boundary as a source of supplementary and, eventually, primary economic health.

In 2018, traffic in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway has burgeoned. The 2018 visitation count for GSMNP was an amazing 11,421,200 and, for the Blue Ridge Parkway, the other large scenic motorway adjacent to the Qualla Boundary, the visitor count was 14.5 million people. In fact, since 1902, a total of nearly 14.5 billion people have visited the area via these parks. And, since Cherokee is a legitimate gateway community (others make claims to that title who are a couple of towns away from any entrance to the parks), many of those travelers have come our way, either passing through or stopping to be tourists.

Travelers turning into Cherokee tourists is still a bread and butter issue for our Tribe. Sure, the tourism landscape has changed over the years, particularly in the late 1990’s with the launch of our expanded adult gaming operation (you don’t come to Cherokee just to play Bingo anymore). Essentially, the adult gaming tourist industry in Cherokee has simply outpaced the family-oriented tourism industry, to put it mildly. Gaming now contributes most funding for community services and improvements, not to mention direct income to members of the Tribe.

The Tribe doesn’t provide extrapolated numbers for tourism revenue and impact. The most information provided comes in the form of a Destination Marketing Economic Impact Report. It is a report generated monthly but because of the way the tax revenue is collected and documented, the reports typically stay a month behind and are sporadic.

The 2019 series of reports indicate that, as of July 2019, $11,763,174 in Tribal Levy has been collected and $2,418,156 in Privilege Tax has been collected. The Levy replaces the state sales tax because the Qualla Boundary is federal land held in trust for EBCI. The money goes to the Tribe and not the state government. The Privilege Tax, typically called an Occupancy Tax by most municipalities, is derived from the taxing of hotel room stays, campground rental, and other temporary shelters for travelers. Levy is not broken down sufficiently to say how much tax is being paid by travelers who eat, go to attractions, and buy goods on the Boundary during their stays, and how much is paid by locals who spend money in Cherokee on a regular basis (year-around). There was no readily available information on number of jobs created by tourism on the Boundary, or cost savings due to tourism impact directly to each tribal member. The closest thing to a report on that is the per capita distribution each June and December, which is a direct result of gaming tourists contributing to our economy.

Data collection and data sharing has always been a challenge on Boundary. While being able to integrate our data with the municipalities and tourism organizations around us would be very helpful in long range strategic planning for the Tribe, we would also share data with those outside entities, something that we have long avoided due to our suspicion of other’s motives and the potential to release information that could be damaging to the Tribe.

Other municipalities, on the other hand, share statistics freely, and, in fact, most of the governmental information is mandated by law to be available to the public including to other municipalities. They even upload to the state website. The information is shared on a public database in a county-by-county listing. For example, in Jackson County for 2018, the county expended $205 million collectively on attracting and serving tourists who came to their county. In return, the county collectively was able to sustain local families to the tune of nearly $51 million in tourism-related employee paychecks, employing over 1,890 citizens of the community (that’s an average wage of $26,984 per tourism worker). Tourists contributed over $11 million in state and $9.5 million in local taxes to the community. The residents of Jackson County paid $464 less in taxes because of the tourism income in that county in 2018. This level of detail is available for each and every municipality in the state of North Carolina. It shows the direct benefit of tourists coming to a community. And, it only takes a few clicks to see why supporting the efforts of the tourism industry is a good thing for a community.

Tourists put food on our tables. They contribute to every social program offered by our government. Tourist dollars make living here more appealing and make life better for this generation and the next. Many of the things in our lives that we take for granted would be vividly missing should we stop being attractive to the family and gaming tourists that now frequent our attractions, eat in our restaurants, sleep in our accommodations, and shop in our stores. There are certainly some in our community who say that we would be better off without them. Those folks are typically the ones who haven’t considered the cost of an economy without the income that tourism brings to our community. Our grandparents understood the value of tourism all the way back into the early 1900’s. We should remember it today.

So, for all the aggravation that congested traffic, long lines, and not-so-educated comments about our culture brings, keep in mind that tourists, as a group, are doing us a good turn. At the very least, we should be courteous to them. At the most, you might want to thank them and offer them a hug.

If you would like to see how tourists are contributing to the county in which you live, visit on the internet. And, when you are speaking with your Tribal Council representative, Principal Chief, or Vice Chief, ask them to provide you with this level of transparency and detail in reporting to the Cherokee community.