Shelley Zumwalt has a tough job. In October, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt appointed her as the new boss of the Sooner State’s Department of Tourism and Recreation. Ten months earlier, the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency had “identified millions of dollars spent imprudently while tourism officials requested yet more money from the Legislature based on faulty budgets.”
The ensuing months brought more trouble. In April, the department terminated its contract with Swadley’s Restaurant Group to operate Foggy Bottom Kitchen eateries at six state parks. According to a statement, in 2021, it:
initiated an internal investigation after reports of financial irregularities were brought to our attention. Financial payments for construction costs were immediately halted in September, while management fees were suspended in December. After extensive review, it has become clear the continuation of the agreement with Foggy Bottom Kitchen is not in the best interest of Oklahoma taxpayers.
Zumwalt took the reins pledging to gain back “the public trust” as well as “the trust of the legislature.” That won’t be easy. Last week, she told lawmakers that the department was “recovering from a ‘toxic environment’ and suffer[ed] from a lack of financial checks and balances.” Even after serving “in state government for 11 years,” she had “never seen anything like this,” and was “unpleasantly surprised almost every single day.”
Let’s wish Zumwalt the best, and hope that her tenure will bring accountability and efficiency to what is clearly a deeply troubled entity. But let’s also ask a fundamental question: Why is government involved in tourism-promotion at all?
All eight states of the America Southwest use tax dollars to tout themselves as great places to take vacations. But within and outside the region, no adequate justification has ever been offered to explain why leisure-and-hospitality businesses can’t do their own marketing. From candymaking to HVAC, auto repair to software engineering, legal services to dental care, thousands of industries contribute to state economies. What’s so special about tourism?
And what kind of return on taxpayer “investment” do tourism bureaucracies generate? Research on the question was scant until 2016. That’s when the Mackinac Center for Public Policy conducted a deep dive into “the effectiveness of state-funded tourism promotion.” Its findings? Subsidies did not, “on average, boost gross state product or income in a meaningful way in any of the three sectors examined in this analysis: hotel and accommodations, amusement and recreation and arts and entertainment.” While two of the three did experience a “statistically significant gross positive result,” the “benefits were tiny and outweighed by the costs to the state economy as a whole.” Of the 48 contiguous states, only five (Mississippi, Idaho, Washington, Maryland and Nevada) “distinguished themselves from the national average, with a “$1 million increase in tourism promotion spending … increas[ing] hotel and accommodations activity by as much as $300,000.” Just $300,000 in extra business at a cost of $1 million? Lousy deal.
Death Valley National Park. Hoover Dam. The Grand Canyon. The Las Vegas Strip. Zion National Park. Monument Valley. Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Acoma Pueblo. White Sands National Park. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Historic Route 66. Roswell. The Alamo.
Think the American Southwest has the goods to hack it as a tourist mecca? Then it’s hardly necessary for politicians and bureaucrats to meddle with the industry. In addition to a departure from the core functions of local and state governments — e.g., plowing snow, keeping violent felons behind bars, conducting health-and-safety inspections — corporate welfare invites the kind of malfeasance that Shelley Zumwalt has been asked to clean up.