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Opinion | Martha J. Sheridan and Lee Pelton

Investing in tourism and the arts boosts Mass. economy

A couple visiting from Quebec walk along Washington Street after seeing “Carmen” at the Boston Opera House in September 2016. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Massachusetts’ dynamic tourism industry and its arts and cultural assets are inextricably linked, collectively delivering extraordinary dividends to the state’s economic vitality and quality of life. Residents and visitors alike reap the benefits created by these sectors, and yet there is no predictable or dedicated financial support on the state and local level to ensure their sustainability, or even their survival.

With Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s proposal for a special commission, led by the Executive Office of Economic Development, to evaluate tourism and arts funding, Massachusetts officials and tourism partners can take a fresh look at the profound impact these sectors have on the Boston and Massachusetts economy. This commission would examine the current state of funding for these sectors in the Commonwealth, and the success of various programs, and compare them with other states’ efforts. The commission would hold meetings and public hearings over the next year and deliver its findings a year after it convenes.


The commission would represent all of Massachusetts and stimulate a conversation on how we invest in and leverage our unrivaled qualities. And this investment will bear fruit, for when visitors come to Massachusetts to experience the city, its cultural treasures, and vibrant arts scene, their expenditures generate tax dollars that support the infrastructure and citizenry of Massachusetts without taxing its constituents. Investment in tourism and the arts is a no-brainer, and the creation of this commission is a tremendous first step to initiate a statewide discussion based on that premise. The commission would also look at how to build a stronger pipeline to jobs in the tourism and arts and culture economies, which collectively employ more than 175,000 statewide.

As the Commonwealth’s third largest industry, tourism contributes more than $20 billion annually in direct spending alone. More than 27 million annual visitors sustain an industry that supports nearly 150,000 jobs statewide. It is therefore unfortunate that the tourism industry has perpetually dealt with uncertainty over funding. Taxes are levied on hotel stays at a much higher rate than traditional goods and services. However, little of the revenue generated from the occupancy tax is reinvested in the industry, as was originally intended.


In fact, Massachusetts ranks near the bottom of all 50 states in terms of “destination marketing” budgets on the state and regional levels. While New York, Florida and Hawaii each allocate over $70 million per year in tourism marketing dollars on the state level, and California has over $120 million at its disposal, Massachusetts allocates a mere $10 million — about half the national average — and these funds are divvied up between the state tourism office and 16 regional tourism councils. As the state’s largest tourism council, the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau receives more funding than the others, but the fact that Boston, a top-tier city, has no direct access to occupancy tax revenue, and no consistent notion of how much annual funding it will receive for destination marketing, is baffling for those who work in the industry.

Massachusetts also boasts a robust arts and culture sector: Regional arts and cultural organizations directly inject nearly $1 billion into the local economy each year, providing 26,000 jobs. An ArtsBoston study found that Greater Boston is home to more arts and cultural organizations, per capita, than any other metropolitan area in the country. When it comes to dedicated funding, however, the arts and culture sector fares no better than tourism, which is symptomatic of the bigger picture in which Massachusetts is failing to invest in some of its essential resources, including cultural tourism.


Massachusetts currently lacks a comprehensive and coordinated plan to support these vital institutions, most of which are nonprofit. Instead, these institutions rely on dwindling corporate support and private donors to bridge the gap between ticket revenue and the high cost of staging performances, events and exhibits, or they simply foot the bill themselves. For example, Emerson College has invested over $600 million to revitalize downtown Boston and the arts institutions located there, and the college’s efforts to restore historic buildings and theaters have sparked an economic and cultural renaissance in an area of the city that was once forgotten. But public support for the arts and cultural tourism is urgently needed to continue this momentum.

Indeed, the arts are powerful economic engines that contribute significantly to our local and regional economy, and to the entrepreneurial culture for which Boston has become so well known. And far beyond the obvious pocketbook issues, the arts contribute to quality of life, attract a creative workforce, and have the capacity to inspire, embrace, and celebrate the city’s emerging diversity by bringing people together.

Despite the extraordinary cultural, historical, and natural assets that make Massachusetts a top destination, without deep investment in the arts, culture, and tourism sectors, we risk losing so much more than market share to other states. We risk losing the qualities that make our Commonwealth a leader and model for the rest of our country.


Martha J. Sheridan is president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. Lee Pelton is president of Emerson College.