By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
Since the early 1950s, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) has depended on tourism in some form or fashion to be a sustaining economic community driver. The Tribe, for decades, was sustained by a combination of monetary grants and dollars generated by levy, which was primarily contributed by tourists. Family tourism has had its ups and downs over the years, but still contributes tens of millions of dollars to the Qualla Boundary economy through levy and occupancy (we call it “privilege”) taxes. Tens of millions sounds like a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of million dollars that we receive in direct revenue from the use of our gaming facilities, but in hard economic times, every dollar counts.
Many tourism organizations are struggling to find the right marketing message in a time when travel is seen by many as a dangerous proposition. Some are considering eliminating tourism messaging altogether. Cancelling tourism promotion at any time is also a hazardous proposition. Destination marketing success depends on the customer continuing to keep a vacation destination top of mind. Once potential clients lose sight of a vacation spot, they will seek and identify with other locations. And believe it or not, brand recognition and loyalty still exist. Once I am familiar with a destination and have a good experience, I tend to make that vacation spot a place I go back to often and will even keep it as a fallback spot if my “new” vacation spot falls through in any given year. So, once we lose them, we may lose them for some time.
Many tourism organizations do not have the budgets needed to continue marketing like they did before the pandemic struck. They aren’t reducing dollars because they want to, they are reducing because they are marketing to the income they have. Why market at all since municipalities don’t necessarily want to encourage visitation during the pandemic? Besides the one previously stated, regardless of advertising, tourists will come to our area. Since March and all through the first four months of this pandemic, I have seen as many or more out-of-state tags on and around the Boundary as I ever have. Regulations didn’t stop it and barricades did not prevent all outside traffic.
Since tourists regularly read and inquire at tourism websites and other media outlets, the marketing programs of municipalities have the means to send the community’s message on how to help make everyone safe. One local municipality is encouraging responsible tourism through their media messaging. They can promote the destination for future visitation, while ensuring that those who chose to travel to their county during the pandemic know how to provide a level of safety for themselves and for the community they visit.
This approach keeps the destination top of mind for our prospective clients for visits beyond the pandemic and encourages safe practices beyond the pandemic. Many of our local businesses are tourism dependent. Hundreds of thousand dollars are being spent to “prop up” local businesses because of the economic impact of the pandemic. It is critical that we, to the best of our ability and with safe practices, open all revenue streams available to us. A critical element to successfully doing that is maintaining our destination messaging and advertising.
We are legitimately concerned about the impact of tourists on our community health. We need to listen to our health experts on the issues of safety during the pandemic. In a recent interview, Dr. Richard Bunio, executive clinical director at Cherokee Indian Hospital, was asked about some of the community calling for a reclosing of the Cherokee township border and the risk of tourists spreading the virus.
He said, “So we actually started looking at this because we knew that the community was concerned about tourism. So there are a couple of different factors here. How likely are you to get near a tourist? Me, not very. I may pass by them in the grocery store, but I am not going to spend a whole lot of time with them. So I think the risk there is pretty low. But, if I am going to a friend’s BBQ unless I am wearing my mask and keeping my distance, I think that is actually a higher risk. We looked at all the positive cases that we’ve had and about 25 percent of the cases are related to people in the same household. So, no tourists there. Another 25 percent are related to these gatherings-cookouts, some funerals. And then there is another 50 percent that we call community spread where somebody tests positive-we don’t know where they got it. Could it have been a tourist? Maybe, but I think we have to ask ourselves, aside from the casino, how often do tourists really interact with us less than six feet for more than 15 minutes? So, I think the risk is pretty low and this is where we are; the virus is everywhere. We are probably just as likely to give it to a tourist as they are to give it to us. It depends on where they come from too. People coming from high risk areas could be a little bit concerning. You know, even when we closed the border, we didn’t stop people in Cherokee from traveling back and forth.”
Tourism continues to be a vital part of our ability to be an economic driver. And being an economic driver is a powerful tool toward our continued perception of sovereignty. Surely, we must put public safety first. And surely, we must continue to find ways to stabilize our economy. We must be wise in our spending and we must be wise in the decisions we make about budgeting. We must think beyond the end of our noses. We have lost much ground over the last two decades with short-sighted plans. We have focused on building municipal infrastructure and missed or stalled on economic diversification.
Painttown Rep. Chelsea Saunooke put it this way, “I never thought in my lifetime that we would be going by a needs-based budget or performance-based approach. I know growing up I always thought ‘we waste a lot of money’. It took a pandemic to come in and hit us hard to get us to this point. It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic. But, we are a wealthy Tribe. And even though we are wealthy, we don’t need to live like there is no tomorrow.”
We need tourism as we are thinking about what tomorrow will look like. Reducing or eliminating our tourism message could damage our future economic growth. There are responsible ways to communicate that “we are still here” as a destination and make good choices for the safety of the community and the traveling public.