There isn't a benchmark to determine how much the state should spend on tourism marketing, some legislators concluded Wednesday.
In reviewing the work of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, the private sector trade group that took over all state-funded tourism marketing July 1, members of the House Finance Committee said they didn't know if the state's $4.85 million grant and the association's $2.07 million required match add up to the right effort.
Committee Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican, seized on the fact that Alaska's annual tourism growth rate has dropped to 3 percent, compared with a national average of 3.5 percent.
"What is the proper rate of growth?" Mulder asked. "If we know what a healthy rate of growth is, it would serve us better in terms of a budgetary number. And I say that only thinking about Juneau because you've seen some backlash from this community from perceived too-rapid growth in the tourism sector."
Meanwhile, in Southcentral there is a surge of tourism support services in an effort to attract more visitors, he said.
ATIA President Tina Lindgren and Chairwoman Ann Campbell acknowledged that they haven't identified an optimal growth rate. But they pointed out that Alaska has dropped from a high of seventh place among the states to 33rd in money spent on tourism marketing. They said that explains why the state's previous average visitor growth rate of 5.5 percent has not been maintained. As a result of budget cutbacks, the state has had only occasional television advertising in recent years.
Mulder challenged the ATIA board to come forward with a target growth rate. "Then it's incumbent on us to figure out whether that's something we can reasonably afford or not."
Lindgren and Campbell said the new trade organization, the successor to the Alaska Visitors Association and the public-private Alaska Tourism Marketing Council, has gone through a successful infancy in centralizing marketing efforts.
Concerns by small communities and entrepreneurs last year that the new organization would be just a front for the cruise ship-based industrial tourism sector have eased somewhat, said John Mazor, president of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, in an interview. "I think they're making steps at resolving it. I don't think they're quite there yet."
Campbell said 80 percent of ATIA's 900 members are businesses with 15 or fewer employees.
But Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat, said: "I guess the fear I have is those 80 percent of their constituents don't have 80 percent of the choices in how they do marketing."
Elton is troubled by the voluntary nature of the annual private sector match, which is supposed to increase to $6 million in two years. If a cruise line or a convention and visitors bureau decided the money it spends on ATIA dues would be better spent on marketing its specific niche or destination, the whole financial underpinning of the new approach could collapse, he said in an interview.
Mazor said his board has not decided whether to accept a pending $20,000 increase in its dues, which would bring it up to $48,000 a year. The CVB would have to cut some of its own programs to come up with the additional money, he said.
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com.