By Cornelius Frolik, Dayton Daily News, Ohio
Ohio's tourism industry in 2011 had its best year on record, as consumer spending on leisure travel continued to grow and surpassed prerecession levels, according to a new report.
About 180 million people visited Ohio or traveled within the state last year, up 1 million people from 2010, according to research released Wednesday by the Ohio Office of Tourism.
The uptick in visitors helped boost tourism sales to $40 billion in 2011, but the real driver of growth was an increase in overnight stays, which on average add three times as much to the economy as day trips.
"If you have a guest just come for the day, they spend about $100," said Matthew MacLaren, executive director of the Ohio Hotel & Lodging Association. "If you have a guest come for a night, they spend about $300 per day, and that goes into the local economy."
Tourism in Ohio generated $40.3 billion in sales in 2011, up from $38.2 billion in 2010, according to the tourism office. Total sales last year broke the state's previous record, $39.2 billion, set in 2008. The total number of trips in the state also reached a new high.
MacLaren said the tough economy changed many people's travel plans, and instead of visiting faraway locales, they are now seeking out regional attractions in states, such as Ohio.
Although slightly fewer people took day trips in Ohio last year, overnight trips increased by 5 percent to 36.5 million, the most recorded in the state since it began tracking such data in 2000.
Ohio Tourism Director Amir Eylon said Ohio is located within a day's drive of 60 percent of the U.S. population, and it has become a more attractive travel destination in the Midwest because people are looking for bargains in light of high gas prices and the struggling economy.
"Folks became more interested in regional travel during the recession, because people still traveled but they cut back on how much they were spending and how long they were going," he said. "They were looking for one-tank trips."
Staycations were popular during the recession, but some residents have replaced day trips with trips that require overnight accommodations.
A Dayton Daily News story on April 27 reported that hotels throughout Dayton and the state have seen their occupancy rates rebound to prerecession levels, and travelers are booking longer stays than they did a few years ago.
Eylon said overnight stays are important to the state's economy because travelers of this type on average spent $305 per day last year, compared to $104 per day for people on day trips.
Per-person spending in 2011 increased by 4 percent for day trips and 6 percent for overnight trips.
"People are traveling more and they are spending more," he said. Officials said theme parks and hotels are obviously not the only beneficiaries of visitors. Gas stations, supermarkets, restaurants, retail and even governments rely on out-of-town travelers for much of their revenue.
In Warren County, about one in seven jobs are supported by tourism, and 60 percent of the county's sales taxes comes from visitors, said Phil Smith president and CEO of the Warren County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"We have about 7 million different visitors every year to this county," he said.
Warren County, which is home to Kings Island, Great Wolf Lodge and the longest zip line in the Midwest, funds many of its government services through sales taxes paid by tourists, Smith said.
The Sandusky, Ohio-based Cedar Fair, which operates Kings Island, Cedar Point and other amusement parks, reported record net revenues of $1.028 billion in 2011. Net income was $72.2 million, reversing the company's $31.6 million net loss for 2010.
Eylon said tourism spending last year helped boost the industry's employment in Ohio to the equivalent of about 443,000 full-time employees, an increase of 4,000 jobs over 2010. He said about 8.7 percent of Ohio's jobs are tied to the tourism industry, and the industry generated about $2.7 billion in state and local taxes.
The National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, one of the largest tourist attractions in the state, welcomed 1.2 million visitors last year. Officials previously said they expect big crowds again this year because of a variety of special events.
"When folks visit our town, they stay at our hotels, they dine out at our restaurants and use our entertainment facilities, and all of that is good economic stimulus that our businesses appreciate," said Chris Kershner, vice president of public policy and economic development with the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.
(c)2012 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)