Gizler: Travel council has little leeway on how tourism taxes are spent

Elaine Gizler in a recent interview explains how the Moab Area Travel Council spends its annual budget.
Photo by Doug McMurdo

Elaine Gizler, executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council, is sometimes the target of residents who are frustrated over the lack of affordable housing in the region. They fault her for heading an astoundingly successful tourism campaign they believe is the root of all that ails the Moab area. Traffic congestion, crowded trails, harm to the natural environment, and the aforementioned lack of roofs needed to shelter people.

She wants citizens to understand three things: First, she said people are mistaken when they claim the council spends $3 million per year on advertising to tourists. Second, she wants people to know she is mandated by state law to spend tourism-derived revenue on specific items, and three – she is absolutely sympathetic to people struggling to survive in housing-starved Grand County.

“It’s terrible,” she said. “Especially for young people. They’re living in their cars.”

And while Gizler claims she is thick-skinned enough to weather the criticism, she said one person called her a Nazi and that was not acceptable. “Do they even know what the Nazis did?” she asked rhetorically. “Have they been to the Holocaust Museum? Because I have and what the Nazis did was horrific. People should think before they throw that word around.”

Gizler also said she’s grown weary of people consistently using the $3 million figure when it comes to the council’s advertising budget. The actual advertising budget is set at about $1.9 million.

That funding does represent the bulk of the more than $2.4 million of the council’s budget for 2019. It is spread around, including $50,000 a year for postage, $40,000 for domestic travel shows and another $30,000 for international travel shows.

Grand County receives about $1.62 million, which goes to support a variety of county departments, bringing the total revenue from transient room tax (TRT), and restaurant and rental car taxes (TRCC), to about $4.25 million.

Gizler said $28,000 of the travel council’s budget goes to help support local events.

Another $82,000 goes to the Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission, a sum that represents half of its annual $164,000 budget. Funding also pays for familiarization tours, tour operators, sales staff, writers and photographers in the U.S., and international bloggers who are paid to visit the area and promote it online and in print.

The marketing costs for television, radio, Sky West and United Denver, and for videos – including those that are designed to educate visitors on how to leave no trace and do no harm to the unique physical environment that makes Moab a tourist destination, comes out of the advertising budget. Production costs of those videos also come out of the advertising budget.
Another $6,000 is spent to keep open the public bathrooms at the Moab Information Center. About $75,000 was spent on printing brochures and $10,000 went to membership dues at the numerous travel organizations to which the council is required to belong.

“As you can see, we have a lot of expenses that are not necessarily related to advertising,” said Gizler, “but I think it’s important for people to understand we are mandated to follow state law.

I know people want it to go to housing, but our hands are tied.”

There is a growing push locally to ask lawmakers to revise the rules regarding how TRT is budgeted. There have also been rumblings in Salt Lake City that not all counties have spent tourism taxes appropriately, affecting the timing of asking lawmakers to change the formula.

Currently, the Moab Area Travel Council is one of eight the State of Utah is auditing. Gizler said she has provided auditors with all the information they have requested, and she is “fully confident” the report will come back clean.

According to budget numbers dating back four years, nearly half a million dollars in TRT taxes, $467,280, goes to operations. The bulk of this fund goes to employee salaries and benefits, for a total of roughly $367,000.

While Gizler said it is up to the legislature to amend rules governing how tourism taxes are spent, she has her own thoughts, as well. “I would say with an economy driven by tourism, and only tourism, we will have this problem,” she said. “Until we have diversification in economic development, we have to rely on tourists to sustain Grand County.”

She said industry of some kind would provide a much-needed new revenue stream, but for now, tourists are practically the only game in town. “If we don’t have visitors coming in, I’m guessing each resident will pay more in taxes.”

She also thinks the county should have more latitude in how taxes collected from tourists are spent, but that trends need to be noticed–trends that began to surface years ago and really picked up steam with the so-called “Mighty Five” tourism blitz that began in 2013 that introduced the world to Utah’s national parks.

Perhaps, she said, the housing crisis could have been averted if officials reacted more quickly to the dramatic increase in visitors. “Thank goodness the current city and county councils are really forward thinking,” she said. “It’s fantastic, but we should have had (affordable housing goals) 10 years ago.”