Tourists spent $3.6 billion in Wyoming last year, but the state's second-largest industry could use some help.

"We're really looking for tourism to become more competitive with our surrounding states so can make sure that Wyoming is getting our slice of the pie, and growing the visitor economy and driving more traffic to the businesses in the state," said Chris Brown, executive director of the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association and the Wyoming Travel Industry Coalition.

The visitor economy is the second largest collector of sales and use tax, about $185 million a year, Brown said. It's also the largest private sector employer of non-farm jobs -- 32,000 full- and part-time -- in the state, he added.

"So finding a dedicated and more competitive funding source for the state's marketing program and growing the visitor economy really is a win-win for the private sector and the state," Brown said.

The state currently funds the Tourism Office from the General Fund with about $12.5 million a year, Brown said.

"That's currently 31st in the nation as far as tourism funding goes, and significantly less than our surrounding states -- South Dakota, Colorado, Montana -- attracting visitors to the Rocky Mountains is a very competitive business," he said.

The boards of directors of the Association, Coalition and the Wyoming Tourism Board to met in Casper last week to review what happened in the 2018 Legislature and prepare for  the 2019 General Session.

In the past Legislature, they unsuccessfully proposed a 1 percent leisure and hospitality tax for those businesses in an industry code that already collect tax, he said. It would have applied to and collected by lodging establishments, restaurants, bars and some visitor attractions, he added.

The groups are looking to create a long-term funding source for the state's marketing program to make Wyoming more competitive and grow its tourism industry, Brown said. "What we're looking for is a way to get the state's marketing program through the Office of Tourism off of the General Fund."

The groups want to find a funding source that isn't subject to the whims of Wyoming's commodity-driven economy and the resulting ups and downs of revenues to the General Fund, he said.

Last week, Gov. Matt Mead hit the road to promote tourism by serving ice cream at Lollypops in Saratoga and Little America, and pouring coffee at Johnny J's Diner in Casper to share a message similar to Brown's.

"Despite the ups and downs in other industries, tourism just keeps chugging along in a  positive trend, and so it's important and fun to promote it," Mead said.

Besides being the second-largest industry and a stabilizing industry, tourism often offers the first jobs to youth, he said.

"It's also oftentimes the front door of economic development," Mead said. "People, they vacation here from whatever city and all of a sudden they say, 'rather than vacationing here, this is where we want to be to enjoy our quality of life and raise our family.'"

The national parks, forests, grasslands and monuments are well-known outside Wyoming, and the state can do more to promote less-known attractions.

The state created an Outdoor Recreation Office, but can do more, he said. "I think that is something we have not fully leveraged yet."

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