After the coronavirus pandemic led to a deep drop in visitors to Branson in 2020, tourism tax revenues are bouncing back in a big way this year.
The tourism tax, which applies a 4% rate for admissions and lodging and a 0.5% rate on food and beverage sales, has brought in $4.31 million through May, according to city data. That’s double last year’s numbers over the same period.
However, the year’s total is also exceeding pre-pandemic levels for the first five months of 2019, which was at nearly $3.3 million. The city’s all-time tourism tax record of $13.57 million was reached in 2018 – a record that could be surpassed this year, said Jason Outman, president and CEO of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce & Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“What is exciting to me at the moment is obviously we’re showing a rebound from the pandemic to the point where we’re seeing great success with the tourism tax year-to-date over 2019 by almost 31%,” he said.
It’s been a quicker-than-expected turnaround, Outman said. Tourism tax revenue of $8.64 million in 2020 was down year-over-year by roughly 33%.
“They definitely have exceeded expectations. I was expecting a potential bounce back, but not to 2019 numbers,” he said, noting March and April 2020 tourism tax revenue was heavily impacted by stay-at-home orders. “I was even going to be happy if we had showed a 30% or 40% growth over 2020 just because we had been shut down.”
The city of Branson’s monthly tourism tax receipts in April and May this year both skyrocketed over 2020, at a clip of 416% and 703%, respectively.
Branson Finance Director Jamie Rouch declined to comment on what’s fueling the tax revenue growth, deferring questions to the local chamber.
“I truly do believe pent-up demand has a lot to do with it,” Outman said. “You look at our visitation and the fact that roughly 64% of our visitors year to date have been within a 300-mile drive market.”
Outman said current visitor tallies aren’t available but he expects the tourist count may challenge 2019’s record of 9.1 million. The total dropped steeply last year to 6.4 million visitors, a 30% decline.
A different picture
Visitors at Silver Dollar City also were down considerably last year, said Brad Thomas, president of Silver Dollar City Attractions. The Branson theme park entered 2020 coming off an annual attendance high of 2.22 million.
Silver Dollar City last year opened for the season in June after a three-month pandemic delay. This year’s season started on time in mid-March, taking advantage of spring break among schools, Thomas said.
“As we’ve moved on into the summer, with vaccinations increasing and consumer confidence increasing, our numbers continue to rebound and get closer and closer to those normal 2019 kind of numbers,” he said, declining to disclose current or 2020 attendance totals.
Thomas said the theme park’s calendar and operation schedule planning was made last winter as the uncertainty of the pandemic’s 2021 impact was largely an unknown.
“We entered 2021 with a very conservative mindset, coming off the really difficult numbers in 2020,” he said, declining to disclose revenue projections. “Considering where we were a year ago in the middle of the summer of 2020, it’s a vastly different picture. We’ve been able to add days back into our calendar. We’re on literally version 16 of the calendar because we’ve added days consistently.”
Thomas is optimistic about the remainder of the year for Silver Dollar City, as well as the company’s White Water and Showboat Branson Belle attractions, which both opened in May.
“What we’ve seen over the last several weeks of summer is significant growth from 2020 but not quite to the 2019 level,” he said.
The chamber has ramped up marketing efforts this year for Branson’s attractions, Outman said. He said the marketing portion makes up roughly $7.8 million of the chamber’s $10.5 million 2021 budget. Due to the pandemic, this year’s budget is conservative, he said, noting it was $13 million in 2020.
“We’ve done a big increase in our digital marketing, whether it’s targeted marketing on Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest. It gives us the opportunity to really hone in on a specific demographic of visitor, whether it’s an age or household income,” he said. “It also gives us an opportunity to target specific theater markets, whether it’s northwest Arkansas, Tulsa, Oklahoma or Kansas City or St. Louis.”
While the tourism tax is mostly used for infrastructure improvements, Outman said 25% of the revenue is allocated for tourism marketing and promotional purposes.
Tax revenues also are on the grow for the Branson/Lakes Area Tourism Community Enhancement District, he said. Assessed in Stone and Taney counties, the 1% sales tax is up 54% year-over-year through April, the most recent data available. The tourism district tax is also 22% above the 2019 total, he said, having collected roughly $2.6 million to date. The revenue is used to market Branson and the lakes area.
The tourism tax district was first approved by voters in 2005 and renewed in 2014, which extended it until 2025, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.
Voters in April also approved renewal of the tourism tax, which began in 1997.
National media reports of Missouri’s rising COVID-19 case numbers and low vaccination rates place the state in an unfavorable spotlight, Outman said. As of June 29, the statewide vaccination rate is 39%, while Taney County is 25%, according to the most recent Department of Health and Senior Services data.
“Hopefully, our message that you can still do safe and fun activities in Branson will counter the negative messaging in the media right now,” he said, noting he’s uncertain if the vaccination rate will impact visitor attendance as the year progresses.
Despite the continuing COVID-related challenges, officials are bullish on tourism prospects continuing to thrive through the summer and beyond.
“Businesses in southwest Missouri and businesses across the United States, we’ve been in the middle of a fire,” Thomas said. “There’s been nothing easy about doing business in the midst of all of the challenges of operating today. We’ve learned to be adaptable, and we’ve learned that it’s the only way to survive in this kind of environment.”
Even as records in tourism tax revenue and visitors could be set this year, Outman said the chamber and CVB are always looking toward the future. He admits to being a bit cautious about next year.
“It could set a new expectation for Branson,” he said of achieving records this year. “But we won’t have that same pent-up demand in 2022 that we had in 2021. Obviously, we’ll do everything that we can to try and maintain the same levels that we reached in 2021.
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