Located on a secluded stretch of Highway 395, the Fort Independence Travel Plaza touts a dozen gas pumps, clean restrooms, and freshly prepared meals for travelers visiting California’s Eastern Sierra.
The facility, which provides revenue to a Paiute Indian tribe, is set to quadruple in size thanks to an $8 million federal grant that will help build a new gas station with space for cultural exhibits and locally made products.
It’s one of hundreds of tourism-related projects across the country that collectively receive about $2.4 billion from the American Rescue Plan, according to an Associated Press analysis of funds poured from last year’s sweeping coronavirus relief bill.
The money is being paid for graffiti-resistant trash cans in Portland, Oregon, culturally diverse music festivals in Nashville, Tennessee, athletic facilities in various cities, and new marketing campaigns to lure tourists to certain states — sometimes in direct competition with one another.
“Our goal is to get people traveling again. Period,” said Dave Lorenz, chairman of the National Council of State Tourism Directors and director of travel for Michigan.
Despite high fuel prices, Americans seem to be taking to the streets. After a slump early in the COVID-19 outbreak, U.S. travel spending is expected to top $1 trillion this year — up 45% from the 2020 low, according to the US Travel Association.
That corresponds with a similar increase in state tourism bureau budgets, which have returned to pre-pandemic levels thanks to federal aid.
A coronavirus relief bill signed into law by former President Donald Trump opened up the possibility of federal money being used for local tourism projects.
The Pandemic Assistance Act subsequently signed by President Joe Biden expanded on this. The American Rescue Plan included $750 million in tourism, travel, and outdoor recreation grants through the Federal Economic Development Authority. It also included the tourism, travel and hospitality sectors among dozens of eligible applications — alongside health care, housing and unemployment programs — for a $350 billion pool of flexible aid sent to state, local, territorial and tribal governments became.
By the end of March, those governments had committed more than $1.6 billion from these flexible funds to about 550 tourism, travel and hospitality projects, according to an Associated Press analysis of recently released U.S. Treasury Department data.
These tourism projects include $425,000 in Portland to replace 200 trash cans with ones with larger openings and harder-to-deface metal slat or wire mesh surfaces. The city cited “a significant increase in the amount of trash, graffiti and vandalism” during the pandemic and claimed that new trash cans “create a safer, more welcoming environment for visitors to our parks,” according to a description in Treasury Department data.
Nashville, known for its country music scene, committed $750,000 to reach “culturally diverse visitors.” Among other things, it helps fund renovations at a once-prominent black music venue, subsidizes choral concerts at Fisk University, and funds an annual jazz and blues festival that takes place in July, among other things.
The goal is to “build up the other genres without pushing country music down,” said Butch Spyridon, CEO of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.
Of the tourism grants awarded by the Economic Development Agency, $510 million was split among states and territories using a formula that accounted for job losses in their leisure and hospitality sectors. An additional $240 million was allocated for competitive grants that are still being awarded.
One of those grants went to the Fort Independence Indian Reservation, a 220-strong tribe that plans to create more than 60 jobs at its expanded travel center.
“Part of tourism is getting from A to B, and one of the stops along the way is our reservation,” said tribal vice president Alisa Lee. “When we’ve managed to educate people about our community, our tribe and our culture, that’s a form of tourism.”
Other competitive grants included $2.2 million to replace old snow machines at Frost Fire Park ski resort in North Dakota, $1.6 million to build a new Mardi Gras museum in Louisiana, and $1.2 million to Dollars to build locker rooms, concession facilities and a pavilion for a cross-country course at Middle Georgia State University.
The university’s president, Christopher Blake, said in a statement that the project has the potential “to turn it into a recreational dynamo” that generates nearly $1 million in economic activity annually.
Several states also projected large returns on their state tourism dollars, according to grant plans obtained by the AP through an Open Records request.
Alabama plans to spend nearly $2.7 million to build three boat docks at reservoirs along the Coosa River. The state said regional fishing tournaments could attract $200,000 into an economy and national tournaments up to $1 million.
Oregon used a $9.1 million grant to help produce promotional videos and scenic images that could be embedded in televised broadcasts of the IAAF World Championships being held in Eugene this month. The international broadcasts could generate between $224 million and $374 million in visitor spending and “spur economic development and opportunity for decades to come,” the Oregon Tourism Commission said in a grant plan presented to federal officials.
Tourism projects in general appear to be an appropriate use of federal pandemic aid because the industry was initially one of the hardest-hit, said Sean Moulton, senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.
But “if you give more flexibility,” Moulton said, “you run the risk of the money being used in a way that you say in hindsight wasn’t the most effective.”
The city of Fort Worth, Texas, has committed $52 million from its flexible American Rescue Plan to expand its convention center. Of that, $40 million was classified as tourism aid in a 2021 year-end report submitted to the Treasury Department.
The Treasury revised its rules in January to prevent large spending on convention centers and stadiums, saying that large capital expenditures to support the travel and tourism industry are “not appropriately proportionate to addressing the negative economic impact of the pandemic”.
Fort Worth is pushing the project ahead anyway. The city reclassified the aid as a replacement for revenue lost during the pandemic — a category with the most flexibility under Treasury Department rules.
California received the largest tourism grant allocation at approximately $46 million. The state channeled all of this — plus an additional $95 million in flexible federal pandemic assistance — to its nonprofit tourism unit, which does national and international marketing.
Other states have also used federal aid to lure visitors to their parks, shopping districts, restaurants and resorts.
While Michigan is targeting tourists in the neighboring Great Lakes region, Ohio is countering by expanding the promotion to 11 new markets, including additional Michigan cities.
Missouri, on the other hand, casts a broader net in the upper Midwest and South. Thanks to a two-thirds increase in its tourism budget, Missouri plans to expand advertising beyond its bordering states to reach potential travelers from Alabama, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin.
“In order to stay competitive with the states that we view as competition, it was important for us to up our game,” said Missouri tourism director Stephen Foutes.
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