Kiewit Luminarium, a new Nebraska tourist attraction on Omaha’s Rivefront. (Courtesy of Kiewit Luminarium)
LINCOLN — The Nebraska Tourism Commission has signaled that a request to increase its spending authority to promote tourism by 40% could be on the table in 2024.
Commissioner Rob Sabin, chair of Nebraska Tourism and general manager of Hilton Omaha, said during an interim hearing Thursday that the commission is seeking an increase in spending authority from $7.5 million to $10.5 million. The commission is funded through a 1% lodging tax.
While receipts have exceeded $7.5 million, Sabin said, commissioners are unable to use excess funds.
“Nebraska is a sleeping giant in the landscape of U.S. tourism,” Sabin said, adding that it’s the job of the Tourism Commission to awaken the beast.
There is a growing marketplace for Nebraska through conventions and sports, Sabin said, which is on top of attractions such as Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium and Lake McConaughy.
Sabin told the Legislature’s Revenue Committee that the increased spending ask is based on inflation, the commission’s balance that accrued from reduced spending during the COVID-19 pandemic and a desire to target potential tourist cities in a “second ring” of destinations.
Those include Chicago, Oklahoma City and Denver.
The median budget of tourism offices in bordering states is over $18 million, Sabin said, and those states have less to offer but more resources to lure in travelers.
State Sen. John Lowe of Kearney requested an interim study to examine revenue and other funding options for the Nebraska Tourism Commission through Legislative Resolution 97. He said that he hates spending Nebraska taxpayers’ money but noted that the spending authority increase would come from already raised funds.
David Fudge of the Nebraska Travel Association, which works closely with the Tourism Commission, echoed Sabin’s comments that greater spending could be used to advertise Nebraska’s attractions to a broader geographic area.
“People won’t come to Nebraska if they don’t know about it,” Fudge said.
Fudge said a possible 2024 request is to tie the spending authority for tourism promotion to lodging tax revenues so the commission can “make adjustments on the fly” based on outcomes.
“We need to fix the system so it also takes into account and encourages industry growth,” Fudge said.
Rich Otto of the Nebraska Hospitality Association also testified in support of increasing the spending authority, suggesting a 3% annual increase could be a long-term solution.
Possible legislation to change the commission’s spending authority could be referenced to the Appropriations Committee instead of Revenue, Fudge noted, so it’s important to inform both.
The Tourism Commission is also working with K.C. Belitz, director of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, for a new marketing campaign that will get more visitors today but the “newest citizens of Nebraska” tomorrow, according to Sabin.
State Sen. Brad von Gillern of Elkhorn, vice chair of the Revenue Committee, asked whether a 40% increase in spending would lead to a 40% in tourism revenue.
Sabin responded that revenues would likely go up.
“We do believe that once we start spending to those amounts and start bringing more people in — especially when you go into Chicago and Oklahoma City — that we’re not only going to retain our current revenue generation,” Sabin said. “We’re actually going to continue to strengthen that.”
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