By Kenneth Kosky

I just read an article about how the 10-day Covered Bridge Festival in nearby Parke County helps that rural county survive the rest of the year.

Yes, two million people attend the festival each year, and $15 million of their money is left behind in the county.

The folks there have had 60 years to build their festival and reap the rewards.

Tourism is a little newer here in Johnson County. It’s only been about six months since I became tourism director here (I am the first and only tourism employee), but we’re already seeing the profile of Johnson County being raised and the money spent here increasing.

Our latest hotel report showed hotel occupancy was up 13 percent in September, and the revenue per room was up 22 percent when compared to the previous September.

A Rockport Analytics study from 2013 showed visitor spending in Johnson County totaled $75.7 million in 2013, supporting 1,608 jobs and generating $17.5 million in tax revenue.

That was before our tourism agency formed. We’ve commissioned a study to see how much it is growing now.

But why should residents like you care about tourism?

The answer is that tourism saves the average household $1,335 in taxes each year. Visitor spending often is what allows the restaurants and stores you love to remain in business.

I was talking with a downtown Franklin business owner recently, and he was telling me how one of his biggest sales was to a visitor.

According to U.S. Travel Association research, states that have slashed their tourism budgets have learned the hard way that such cuts cause exponential losses in revenue.

Colorado, for example, cut its $12 million tourism promotion budget to zero in 1993. The state saved $12 million but saw its market share plunge 30 percent, resulting in an annual loss of $2 billion in tourism revenue. Colorado restored its marketing funding, and the state treasury saw a 12-to-1 return on its investment, and trips to Colorado rebounded to record levels.

On the “I don’t have to learn lessons the hard way” side, Michigan doubled its tourism marketing budget in 2009. The $12.2 million spent on advertising the Pure Michigan brand that year generated $606 million in visitor spending. They continue to invest in tourism. The $12.4 million the state spent in 2014 on regional and national ad campaigns using the Pure Michigan brand generated $1.21 billion in new visitor spending, according to Michigan’s research.

Attractions in our county do a great job of marketing themselves, such as The Historic Artcraft Theatre, The Apple Works and Mallow Run Winery. But what a tourism agency such as ours does is tell the story of the whole destination.

We recently branded our organization as Festival Country Indiana, and we are advertising our communities as the place to have a festive time at our many festivals, events and concerts. Then, once people are here, they are spending money at our craft brewpubs, restaurants, shops and other businesses.

Without that cohesive marketing we provide, other destinations that do destination marketing right, such as Michigan, or even the folks with the covered bridges, would win the market share and reap the rewards.

We are doing extensive digital marketing and have tripled our Facebook followers in six months. Traffic to our website — www.festivalcountryindiana.com — was nine times higher last month than it was one year prior.

We’ve worked with media to get what is great about our communities featured. We’ve been featured in statewide blogs on several occasions.

And we’re working to increase the number of festivals, as well as increasing their quality, by offering grants.

I’ll leave you with one final thought. In the old days, communities could attract businesses by having cheap land and by offering tax breaks. Today, however, companies are looking to locate in vibrant, fun communities.

Tourism is important because it is the front door to economic development, generates revenue and supports the festivals, attractions, restaurants and other things that residents want.

Kenneth Kosky is the director of tourism in Johnson County. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.