Sunset on Saturday, during the peak of the region's fall foliage, drew a crowd to Hemingway's Cuba in downtown Asheville. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

Turn on the television, open a magazine, or browse online in the Southeast, Washington, D.C., Denver, or beyond, and you’re likely to see an ad for Asheville.

“We build, we brew, we paint, we carve,” an announcer proclaims in one video. “Our goal isn’t to be perfect. It’s to be perfectly who we are, deeply rooted, and ever-evolving, drawing you in and calling you back again. You are welcome. Always, Asheville.”

And yet, it wasn’t always this Asheville. The hip and trendy vacation spot, the wedding and group meeting destination, the beer and foodie magnet, is largely a product of a self-perpetuating tourism machine.

Forty years ago, when hotels sat shuttered and virtually no one ventured downtown after business hours, the city’s business and elected leaders helped pass a tax on overnight visitors, the first in North Carolina, with the stipulation that its proceeds be used to advertise and promote Asheville to attract more visitors.

From that first year in 1983, when the occupancy tax generated $380,000, until now, when it is projected to reach $40 million, the jump-starting of a nascent tourism industry transformed Asheville and its economy. At least 65 hotels have opened in those four decades, almost half of them just since 2013, an Asheville Watchdog analysis found.

Visitor spending, based on analyses of credit card transactions, hotel stays and other economic factors, has grown to nearly $3 billion a year. // Credit: Tourism Economics for Explore Asheville

Visitor spending grew from about $80 million to nearly $3 billion a year. And the more visitors who came, the more money the tax generated, and the more was spent on advertising and promoting Asheville to attract more tourists.

In 2021, 12.5 million people visited Buncombe County, 46 tourists for every resident.

The thriving tourism industry in Asheville helps support the restaurants, art galleries, boutiques, and music venues that now occupy the once boarded-up storefronts. Tourism supports one out of seven jobs in Buncombe.

Coming Oct. 31:  VIP gift bags, $250 custom shirts, massages: How the Tourism Development Authority spends its budget

But those jobs typically don’t pay enough for many of the workers who serve tourists to be able to comfortably live in Asheville or buy a cocktail or dinner at a James Beard-nominated restaurant.

Buncombe’s tourism budget is the highest of North Carolina’s top 10 tourism markets because of the volume of visitors and the requirement that two-thirds of the tax money be spent on promotion. Tourism tax laws in some other counties allow for more to be spent on arts and cultural amenities, beach renourishment or general government expenses.

Tourism in Buncombe has steadily grown with a dip in 2020 coinciding with the pandemic. // Credit: Watchdog graphic with data from Longwoods International and Tourism Economics for Buncombe TDA

The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority (TDA) has budgeted more than $100 million to market Asheville just since 2017. The sentiment among some locals is that unlike 40 years ago, when tourism provided desperately needed economic development, Asheville is now a well-known tourist destination, one no longer requiring extensive promotion.

“Maybe 40 years later, the thought that these taxes need to be used for promotional purposes, maybe that argument is no longer valid, that things have changed,” said Christopher McLaughlin, a professor of public law at the University of North Carolina’s School of Government. “Buncombe now, especially Asheville, has become this tourism monster, and you could argue the need is more to sustain the infrastructure in light of what we’re seeing from the impact of all the tourists.”

Brenda Durden, TDA board chair // Photo credit: TDA

The TDA is run by a volunteer board whose voting members represent businesses that benefit from tourism. Brenda Durden, the TDA chair and a hotelier, said tourism and the many businesses that depend on it would suffer if the marketing of Asheville were reduced.

“A lot of people count on us to put food on the table, so I think that we cannot stop because it’s a competitive world out there,” said Durden, CEO of the Asheville Hotel Group. “Travel decisions are very often made just by who has the best marketing, and we want all those folks to come here.

TDA’s mission: Inspire visitation

Asheville has always attracted tourists drawn to the beauty of the mountains and the healing powers of a cool climate and serene environment. The Omni Grove Park Inn, still the area’s largest hotel, opened in 1913.

By the 1970s, with convention hotels closing and downtown Asheville in decline, Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce executives turned to an idea showing promise in nearby states: taxing guests on hotel stays.

The 1983 law authorizing a 2% occupancy tax required the money be spent on advertising and promoting Asheville for tourism. Today, the tax is 6%, and two-thirds goes toward promotion and one-third to capital projects that encourage tourism.

Downtown Asheville was in decline in the mid-1970s, prompting Chamber of Commerce executives to explore an idea showing promise in nearby states: taxing guests on hotel stays. // Photo credit: Buncombe County Special Collections, Photo by David Black, 1975.

Working as Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, the TDA  promotes Asheville “through advertising, marketing, public relations, and sales programs that inspire visitation.”

The marketing team manages ad campaigns that introduce Asheville to prospective visitors across platforms including radio, television, paid social media and sites such as TripAdvisor, Hulu, and Spotify.

Ads for Asheville have run in magazines including National Geographic Traveler, AAA Going Places, Parade, People, and Better Homes & Gardens.

YouTube video

One national campaign in spring 2018 reached 31% of U.S. adults ages 35-64. “More than 460 Explore Asheville broadcast spots aired on the Travel Channel, HGTV, and The Weather Channel,” a TDA annual report describing the campaign said.

A sales team represents Asheville at dozens of travel trade shows and conferences each year and hosts meeting planners for complimentary visits to attract groups and large events. The team’s travel schedule for this year includes more than 45 trips from Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic, to Palm Beach, Fla.

The public relations staff works media contacts to generate publicity and buzz, pitching story ideas, hosting journalists in Asheville and cultivating new sources on “media missions” in New York, Washington, Atlanta, and other places.

Customized websites like this one for Austin were created to allow visitors in “key flight markets,” including Washington, New York, Boston, Chicago and Denver, to easily book trips to Asheville. // Credit: Explore Asheville June 2023 marketing update

The PR staff takes credit for Asheville’s placement on many of those “best of” lists – “Best Cities for Art Lovers,” “Best Places to Retire,” and “#1 Foodie City” in the world.

The Explore Asheville sales team attends dozens of trade shows and conferences each year. // Credit: TDA annual report

“How do these national accolades and headlines happen again and again?” the 2019-20 annual report said. “Asheville businesses and makers are doing remarkable things worthy of national recognition, but it often takes a timely, behind-the-scenes push or connection made by media relations professionals to earn coverage.”

Tourism surge

The marketing blitz has brought steady and at times head-spinning growth in Asheville area tourism:

  • Total visitors to Buncombe grew by 49 percent since 2009, from 8.4 million to 12.5 million in 2021. (More than one-third stayed overnight; the rest came for the day.)
  • Hotel rooms nearly doubled from 4,874 in 1992 to 9,034 in 2022.
  • Lodging sales, including vacation rentals and bed and breakfasts, increased nearly 700 percent from $79 million in 1996 to $633 million in 2022-23.
  • Visitor spending grew 167 percent from 2000 to 2018, compared with the statewide average of 110 percent.
Tourists enjoy downtown Asheville on Oct. 21. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

Tourism especially surged in recent years as short-term vacation rentals flourished. Occupancy tax revenue more than doubled just in the past seven years, from $16 million in 2016 to $36 million in 2022.

That money flowed to the TDA, and the budget for promoting Asheville continued to grow. Spending on marketing, advertising, sales and promotion — and a 35-person Explore Asheville staff — is budgeted this year at $27.5 million.

Benefits and ‘boosterism’

The benefits of Asheville’s prosperous tourism industry are undeniable, notably to hotels, but also to the restaurants, shops, and businesses that depend on visitor spending. Even a slight drop in tourists endangers the survivability of some, as The Watchdog reported in July.

For local residents, tourism provides far more options in arts, dining, shopping and entertainment. And the money generated by the occupancy tax that isn’t devoted to promotion has paid for capital projects intended to boost tourism but that also benefit residents.

The TDA has spent more than $80 million on capital projects including $7 million on the riverfront redevelopment in Asheville, nearly $7 million on the Buncombe sports complex in Enka, and $8 million on riverfront projects in Woodfin.

Tourism has transformed Asheville from “a very unfriendly downtown to what I think is one of the most beautiful downtowns in America,” said Durden, the TDA chair. “We wouldn’t have all the great places we have without our visitors.”

Tourism supports nearly 27,000 jobs, 14 percent of Buncombe’s total, according to a 2021 economic impact report for the TDA.

But those jobs tend to be low-paying. Some of the more common tourism jobs in Asheville paid on average about $27,000 to $32,000, a Watchdog analysis of 2022 federal labor statistics shows. The living wage in Buncombe, the earnings required for a single person to afford a one-bedroom apartment, is $20.10 an hour, or $41,800 a year, according to Just Economics of WNC.

Tourism jobs in Asheville pay less than other occupations. // Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2022

Vic Isley, president and CEO of the TDA, said the federal earnings statistics can be skewed because they do not distinguish between full- and part-time jobs. She cited a presentation made to the TDA board in August that showed pay for leisure and hospitality jobs in Buncombe averaged $38,000 to $39,800 in 2022 — higher than the state average but still below the living wage.

Durden, the TDA chair and hotelier, said that among the many people employed by tourism, “You don’t hear from those folks who have made a life and a good living. They are not the squeaky wheel. We as tourism employers make a great life for a lot of people.”

Visitors brought in $2.88 billion to Buncombe’s economy in 2022, the TDA reported.

“Visitor spending, I would argue, is our strongest export,” said Kathleen Mosher, a board member and past chair of the TDA, who is vice president of communications for the Biltmore Co. “Visitors are bringing in net new dollars to the community and that is really sustaining the really vibrant, entrepreneurial, and independent business economy that we have.”

The parking lot for the Craggy Pinnacle trail was packed Oct. 21, one of the peak fall tourism weekends. // Watchdog photo by Sally Kestin

But the influx of 12.5 million people a year contributes to increased traffic, congestion at popular hiking trails and waterfalls, added trash in the landfill, and increased demand on water and sewer systems, and police and emergency workers.

Isley said that tourists and the businesses they support pay for those impacts with sales and property taxes. “The data shows that actually because of the taxes that visitors generate, that we as residents actually pay less taxes,” she said.

Durden said congestion is more a result of population growth. “I think traffic is really bad when it’s time for people to be going and coming from work, but that’s not typically when tourists are out,” she said. “We have lots of people who are new to our area, and that’s caused some housing issues, but housing is not what TDA is here to do. It is a definite crisis in our area that needs attention, but it’s just not what the TDA is set up to do.”

Only the positive impacts of tourism — the economic benefits of visitor spending, job creation, and tax revenue — are touted by the TDA and the tourism industry. TDA reports refer to the snowball effect of tourists and taxes as “the virtuous visitor cycle.”

Brian King // Credit: Texas A&M University

Brian King, head of the Texas A&M department of hospitality, hotel management and tourism, calls that “the phenomenon of boosterism.”

Tourism development agencies have “an interest in talking things up,” King said. “There’s a whole kind of sector presenting all the positives, particularly those doing the promotions.”

In the tourism field over the past 50 to 60 years, King said, “there has been much more conversation about looking not just at economic pros and cons, but also the social, cultural, environmental” impacts of tourism.

“If you create a machine which is just ramping up the visitation, then it may get out of alignment with the interests of the local residents,” King said. “Public officials should be looking after the quality of life for the residents.”

Spend less on promotion, some locals say

Asheville’s economic problems are significant: rents that are among the highest in North Carolina, a shortage of affordable housing, and low wages that force many service workers to take in roommates or live outside the city.

Bri Snyder, 22, who uses they/them pronouns, is a barista at a downtown coffee shop and has worked at jobs catering to tourists. In Snyder’s previous job, half of their $1,600 monthly pay went toward rent.

Bri Snyder dreamed of living in Asheville but says working in tourism doesn’t provide enough to enjoy the city’s amenities. // Photo credit: Bri Snyder

“There is no room for a mistake, like I can’t break anything or get sick,” Snyder said.

Snyder graduated in May from the University of North Carolina Asheville with a degree in management but said they can’t find a job that pays better than the coffee shop. Snyder grew up in Bryson City and visited Asheville as a child, dreaming of one day living here.

“I’m finally here and I can’t afford to do any of the things that I dreamed of,” they said. “I do feel like some of those things should be a right that I have, like enjoying the cuisine here every once in a while.”

Joel Adams, 70, an Asheville native and retired financial advisor, said he believes Buncombe is over-reliant on tourism, and the quality of life has suffered.

“The reason we have the need for affordable housing is because we’ve created an economy with low-wage jobs,” he said. “We have had to use philanthropic resources to provide housing, which is a subsidy to our tourism industry.”

Joel Adams, an Asheville native, said he believes less money should be spent on marketing the city to tourists. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

Adams said traffic “is horrendous because we do not have the infrastructure to accommodate the business that we are marketing.”

Parking at the Asheville Regional Airport, which recently started a $400 million expansion and is one of the fastest growing airports in the country, has become more difficult.

“You have to arrive hours and hours before a flight,” Adams said. On a recent return flight to Asheville, he said, he sat on the plane for an hour and a half after landing as it waited for a gate to open. “It’s a shit show,” he said.

The airport’s website Oct. 20 included this alert. // Credit:

Adams said he now hikes in Macon County, which is “not on the map for most of the tourists,” because the trails in Buncombe are too crowded.

Adams recalls the Asheville of the 1980s and said tourism succeeded in revitalizing downtown, but “it’s obviously overshot the mark.”

He said he believes far less should be spent marketing Asheville to tourism today.

“Why promote it?” he said. “It’s worked. We’ve got more than we can handle.”

Staff writers Andrew Jones and John Boyle contributed to this report.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Email As a free, nonprofit, volunteer-run news team, The Watchdog’s in-depth coverage of local issues depends on support from the community. Please donate here.

63 replies on “Asheville tourism became a $3 billion-a-year behemoth, but at what cost?”

  1. Projects possible in part through grants from the TDA:
    African American Heritage Museum at Stephens-Lee
    African American Heritage Trail
    Asheville Art Museum
    Asheville Community Theatre
    Asheville Municipal Golf Course
    Asheville Museum of Science
    Asheville Visitor Center
    AVL Unpaved
    Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center
    Buncombe County Civil War Trails
    Center for Craft
    Harrah’s Cherokee Center Arena
    Enka Recreation Destination
    Enka Center Ballfields
    Glass Center in Black Mountain
    Grove Arcade
    Highland Brewing Company Event Center
    John B. Lewis Soccer Complex
    LEAF Global Arts Center
    McCormick Field
    Montreat College Pulliam Stadium
    Navitat Canopy Adventures
    North Carolina Arboretum
    Pack Square Park
    River Arts District
    RiverLink – Karen Cragnolin Park
    Smoky Mountain Adventure Center
    Swannanoa River Greenway
    The Collider
    The Orange Peel
    UNC Asheville Karl Straus Track
    UNC Asheville Sports Complex Lighting
    WNC Farmers Market
    WNC Nature Center
    WNC Veterans’ Memorial at Pack Square Park
    Woodfin Greenway & Blueway
    Wortham Center for the Performing Arts
    YMI Cultural Center

    1. The question is not what are the positive benefits from the TDA. The question is what are the negative affects and at what point does the negative outweigh the harmful? Belle Chere Festival was very successful in promoting the downtown for years but reached a point where it was doing more harm than good.

      1. Yes, very few would argue that tourism has brought us no benefits. But like the ill-fated Bele Chere (where I ran my first road race in 1982) that a great many locals (residents, business owners and service-industry workers) came to despise, what’s the Sweet Spot for Tourism? What’s too much, and will we know when we’ve crossed the line (and potentially even destroy tourism)? Also, in this age of social media, there could surely be less (and less costly) advertising that brings similar results. It would also be interesting to hear from law enforcement personnel. How do they feel about living in a place they cannot afford (largely due to tourism/popularity) where they must patrol and safeguard all these extra people? Might tourism be a morale-killer for police officers, the reason many are leaving and why (along with low salaries) Asheville cannot attract more? What are the environmental/carbon costs of inviting hordes of people to fly and drive here and dump single-use plastic into the environment? It’s fine to tout the many financial benefits of tourism, but let’s begin to be honest and realistic about the many overlapping challenges and true costs of our ‘success’.

  2. Asheville has always been a tourism town. Sometimes there are inconveniences that come with it, but it’s made our town, supported the many restaurants we enjoy, helped diversify our economy through the craft brew scene and attracted new non-tourism related businesses.

    1. I’m not sure that tourism has diversified our economy–craft brewing is still largely service oriented/low paying.

  3. I’ve long wondered why Asheville is consistently in the top 25 or so places to live, but we can’t pay our people a living wage. The excuse I hear is that there is no flat land for industry and/or “you have to manufacture something.” But the businesses/industries which pay a living wage today don’t need lots of land and don’t manufacture things. So, why aren’t we spending some of that TDA money to attract businesses that do pay a living wage? Tourism in Asheville is important and will remain so, but why have we built our economy solely on that. And why can’t we spend some of the room tax on building an entertainment venue to replace the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, or the parking garage proposed as a part of Project Aspire, or any number of other badly needed infrastructure project, or even to recruit more police?

    1. See list above. The TDA is contributing about $23 million in occupancy tax for renovation and improvements to McCormick Field which is owned by the City. My guess is Thomas Wolf will eventually be on that list.

  4. Just got back from a short visit to Bend, Oregon.
    Extremely (almost eerily) similar to Asheville in terms of size, largely tourist economy, and surrounding natural beauty.
    Big differences in finances though.
    1) 10% occupancy tax goes straight to the city for funding necessary infrastructure and projects. Bend is an order of magnitude cleaner, better maintained, etc. than Asheville.
    2) Oregon has no sales tax and progressive limitations on property taxes such that Bend’s property tax valuations are kept well below market AND tax rates are limited as well. This greatly helps keep citizens in their homes as housing prices have skyrocketed like everywhere else. Property taxes only fund city core services (police, fire, etc.); most everything else requires referendum approved by voters with funding through other means, including debt issuance.
    3) I haven’t researched promotion of area but suspect it is a fraction of what the TDA does or perhaps even handled at the state level. Like any good service or business, advertising is really not needed as word-of-mouth and repeat customers provide plenty of business.
    4) I maintain that the BC TDA’s continued high level and exhaustive promotion of Asheville is all about promoting growth in WNC with Asheville as the magnet. What is tragic about this model is that Asheville still get’s little of the occupancy tax revenue but bears a signficant and ongoing infrastructure impact.

    I’m certain that Sally Kestin excellent detailed and accurate reporting will shed light on the financials of the TDA in a future article and that will be quite eye opening as to how much is spent on the operational side of this now behemouth.

    1. Thanks for sharing what you learned on your trip to Bend, Oregon. Clearly, we don’t have to be locked into the system as it is…personally, I don’t think we need a TDA anymore at all.

  5. Living in Miami in the 60’s I’ve seen tourism skyrocket over the past 50 years. I believe wages will eventually follow growth. And, service industry employees will get payed more along with prices going up on those services. It is a cycle that naturally occurs. However the growth curve can be painful especially in the service area. Essential services also need help! Police salaries need to come up to competitive levels and support for these folks needs to be reinforced by the Council and Mayor to insure our continued quality growth.

  6. I want to know how does a overdone get a job with TDA???? Would love to be able to travel to 45 cities,towns,states– and the best no costs to me…and to me..being a rare native, being born and raised…we do not need more tourists, enough is enough. It has totally changed this area. As a local, I NEVER go not shop,eat,patronize any businesses uptown. But that is my choice…

    1. We used to go downtown a lot–restaurants, shops, etc–probably at least three times a week if not more. Now it feels too overrun with tourists. Even our beloved Black Mountain is now sad to see–super overrun with tourists.

  7. “Visitor spending grew from about $80 million to nearly $3 billion a year.”

    That’s money invested in our local economy — paid by outsiders. If we didn’t have this economic resource, WHO would support the creatives and businesses our community claims to love so much?

    I’ve worked at downtown restaurants and would estimate more than half of patrons were tourists. Yet our community bites the hand that feeds. Let’s talk more about how we can encourage local employers to raise wages and encourage council members to SUPPORT housing developments (hint: hundreds of new units have been voted down this year)!

  8. Have we gone too far? More hotels are going up and each one adds to the marketing machine that feeds those hotels. I suppose the only thing that will correct this outsized growth is a massive correction in the stock market or another major recession.

    The positives are a larger contribution to our tax base and support of small businesses and restaurants. Negatives…growth in drug trafficking, crime, locals avoiding downtown, new vagrancy tourism and a lack of affordable rental and housing market.

    It’s a double-edged sword. Asheville has definitely lost its innocence thanks to the TDA. Many locals are looking for the next undiscovered affordable beautiful small town. They will be hard pressed to match what we have here.

  9. “Why promote it?” he said. “It’s worked. We’ve got more than we can handle.” I have lots of questions. Hasn’t the occupancy rate of the hotels gone down? Why are we allowing more and more hotels to be built at this point? Who is benefitting from all of this continuing approval of building more hotels and other unneeded “mixed use” developments? Are payoffs to the City Council and Zoning board members happening? Are we going to let our tourism get to the point where we have to do what Europe is having to do now because of overwhelming tourism? If tourism is still growing, why have so many downtown businesses closed? Why is it necessary for the TDA sales team to make 45 trips a year to luxury tourist destinations (and how much are these people being paid? Asheville’s allure is no longer needing a lot of promotion. Why isn’t MUCH more of the hotel occupancy tax spent on our dilapidated infrastructure at this point? There’s never any mention of improving our infrastructure. Just STOP!

    1. That was the purpose of Belle Cheer as well. Then it reached a point that it was doing more harm than good.

  10. Tourism has sociological effects. Tourists are not embedded in a society, where they will encounter people and institutions repeatedly. The breaking of the bonds that tie a less voyeuristic society together, leads to all sorts of undesirable behaviors. Short-term orientations do not lead to long-term, robust institutions.

  11. downtown few locals visit anymore because of the higher prices and crowded venues. Ten years ago, locals would go to one of these venues or walk the downtown and always bump into someone they knew. It was a downtown with a small-town feeling and often a place where locals from different parts would meet. It was an Asheville locals shared with a manageable amount of tourists. The roads were not filled with potholes due to increased traffic and the downtown was not overwhelmed with an abundance of modern looking hotels.

    The advantages that one third of the taxes go to listed in the article are for tourists, not locals. When there is burglary or personal property theft of locals, the police are busy prioritizing handling the downtown for tourists, they are told to ignore anything under $1000. The roads are hazardous because they are crowded, people are impatient and they know the lack of police presence will not stop them from going through a light or tailgating. The fire department is required to go out every time there is a car accident in the busy streets. The airport was enlarged for the tourist trade, many of whom are transported by hotel shuttles, not for the locals who cannot find parking.

    There is a bubble that can be drawn around tourism and its benefits and the locals are somewhere on the fringe far outside the circle. It is the local taxes that pay for any overused infrastructure. It’s not that locals are against tourism, but at some point the tourism pail overflowed because there was more than it could hold. Time for the TDA to spend more money on our police, fire department, roads, water system and other infrastructure rather than trips to the Caribbean and overkill advertising.

  12. The TDA should not be run by people whose businesses benefit from tourism growth without regard for our community. Pointing out the benefits that the TDA has contributed to our community is PR noise. It is as simple as that.

    Again, thank you Asheville Watchdog.

  13. Tourism has always been essential to the livelihood of this town. Anyone who has read Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel” would recognize this passage:

    “The city splendidly equipped to meet the demands of the great and steadily growing crowd of tourists that fills the Mountain Metropolis during the busy months of June, July, and August. In addition to the eight hotels de-luxe of the highest quality, there were registered at the Board of Trade in 1911 over 250 private hotels, boarding houses and sanatariums all catering to the needs of those who come on missions of business, pleasure, or health.”

    Could it be possible that there were even more hotels in Asheville’s golden age than today?

  14. Having worked in the service industry in AVL/Buncombe for over 25 years I worry about the future of young service workers. I’m so thankful everyday that my family was able to buy a small 2/1 home that we thought we thought be a starter home almost 20 years ago. We have always wanted to move on up but it’s been too costly. I don’t see how the young people I work with today will ever have the opportunity I had to buy a house in Buncombe county. The real estate is too expensive to for people who are making 20-30 dollars an hour. Locals are being cheated out of real wealth building at the expense of rich tourists buying vacation homes here and property groups buying houses to rent to locals. Tourists come here to vacation and leave thinking about how to get in on these opportunities. I get calls every week from property groups wanting to buy my house sight unseen. TDA has turned Buncombe county into an investment company.

    1. Most won’t. If they want to own and build wealth, they should consider leaving…TN, VA…or they can waste away in ‘affordable’ micro housing…reality is real.

    2. The problem you are speaking to is that we have not planned for, approved, and built enough housing to meet demand. Nearly every successful city in our county is plagued with this issue.

      I agree that it’s our younger generations that have been stripped of the ability to remain in the communities they contribute to because of poor policies and NIMBYISM. But I rhink your misplacing your blame if you think this is tourisms fault.

      1. Two or more truths can exist at once and potentially contribute to the same situation. By opposing development in my neighborhood, I (might) reduce the future supply of long term affordable housing. By converting my long term affordable rental into an STR, I (definitely) reduce the current supply…

      2. Terrance, I’d like to give you a very accurate first-hand account of how tourism impacts the rental market. I own a furnished rental in Buncombe County a few miles from downtown. Zillow lists it for over $2,000/month. I rent it to local professor for $1,200/month (utilities and lawn care included) when I could easily rent it as an STR for $200/night. I might one day do this to help fund my retirement. At that point I will be embracing the fact that we’re a ‘tourist town’ and I will in fact be harming the local rental market. Meanwhile, I reserve the right to oppose certain (but not all) developments that would diminish quality of life for locals.

    3. Well said! And that’s been our experience, too–weekly texts/offers for our house. It does feel like there’s this new kind of rich-person hustle here.

  15. While the author provides a detailed and accurate accounting of the growth of tourism, she makes several disappointing omissions. Like a residential population that has doubled since the creation of the TDA and an economic GDP that has literally doubled over the last decade alone. These trends are decades in the making and should have precipitated wise investments in housing, water, roads and interstates by local leadership – but here we are. Why our elected leaders chose instead to put their head in the sand would be a far more interesting topic for these pages. Tourists are not responsible for our poor planning, any more than the growing numbers of new residents, most notably the author, so proud to now call Asheville home. We have failed ourselves and it’s time to stop clutching our pearls because we now have share our roads, sidewalks and trails with more folks.

    Quick question to the editor – Last week watchdog was passionately advocating for yet another tourism agency known as the sports commission to receive annual tax payer funding because it was so vital to local interests. But this week – they’re the voice of overtourism?

    1. Hello, this is Keith Campbell, the managing editor of Asheville Watchdog. Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting. Last week, we didn’t advocate for the Sports Commission to receive annual taxpayer funding. John Boyle wrote a news story about some Sports Commission members’ concerns about the TDA potentially absorbing the agency. And we’re not advocating with this investigative series, either. It’s up to readers to decide where they stand on the issue.

  16. As a native of (north) Florida, I know well that dependence on a tourism economy means you are VERY dependent on how the nation’s economy is doing overall. When people have less disposable income, they travel less and stay closer to home when they do travel. This causes the economies of places that are overly dependent on tourism to crash. Luckily, the economy of my hometown is university focused, not tourism focused, so it was ok during down times, but the state overall suffered.

    I tried to tell people this when I lived in Asheville in the 80s. No one wanted to believe me. When we started looking at moving back to the area a decade ago, I saw the massive hotels going up all over downtown as real eyesores. The performing arts, which my husband and I love, are much touted but are largely out of reach for our budget. The prices at the Wortham Center are real budget busters for many. (Thank you NC Stage for your “pay what you wish” night!) And we hear constantly about Asheville approving even more hotels in downtown.

    What is going to happen to this thriving tourism industry in the next major recession? The city of Asheville really should think seriously about how much it wants to rely on tourism.

  17. As a long time resident & downtown business owner I can’t say I care for the direction Asheville is going in. I’ve seen a big change in the quality of tourism currently coming to Asheville. I would like to see a breakdown of the areas the TDA is marketing to. And I would like to see a breakdown of the amount/percentage of where the tourist dollars are being spent. Appears lodging, food/alcohol as well as visitation to the Biltmore Estate are the top areas where tourist dollars are going. Asheville has built its visitor market on Beer culture. Someone posted a quote from Thomas Wolfe earlier. But during that era of Asheville it was a sophisticated w serious money visitor who came to visit. A Great Gatsby era. We were deemed ‘Paris of the South’. But now we are becoming a mainstream tourists town that is nothing short of a Gatlinburg or Myrtle Beach type of tourist. Taking care of Asheville’s residents & the infrastructure to support the massive increase in tourism should be first priority. Dealing w the increase in the homeless population in a constructive manner esp those w serious mental illness & addiction issues is imperative to a healthy city. The excuse that “it just comes w growth” is not acceptable. Quality of life for many of the residents living here has deteriorated to STAYING here vs LIVING due to cost of living, poorly built & managed affordable housing, rising rents, along w the traffic and parking issues within downtown as well as within a 10 mile radius of. Asheville has become a cash cow for developers & rental property owners. And now one of the last of the charming streets in downtown is going to become host to a soon to be tallest building in the city. Please take time to consider the QUALITY of why people were drawn to coming to Asheville & moved here vs where it’s been going. And more importantly the quality of life including affordability & income made for a majority who live and work here. Not to mention the problems we have w Mission Hospital which was otherwise a once great hospital. The cons are starting to outweigh why come & live here. ‘You can’t go home again” after you pave paradise & put up a parking lot.

  18. We avoid downtown except on Monday and Tuesday or occasional mornings right at 10 when the tourists are still sleeping off their Asheville beer. This town is becoming unlivable for permanent residents

  19. Lots of convos about the livability of Asheville that doesn’t address core resources strained by tourists. Did ya’ll know our water table is down 9.5″ due to drought with about a million visitors a month sucking down our water as well? And the rates went up in July hurting a lot of us living check to check. Can’t those taxes go to water delivery improvements and whatever the rate hikes are for?

  20. How telling that this article followed the previous article about the disastrous hospital system we are grappling with. How can we bring in billions of tourism money while patients fend for their lives seeking medical care with no government concern? Maybe the TDA should be funding a new hospital to keep residents and tourists safe.

  21. Asheville is a nightmare for disabled people in wheelchairs, especially downtown and parking garages. But apparently it’s too expensive to comply with those pesky Federal laws requiring access. Asheville has money to burn but some messed up priorities.

  22. Is there a plan to fact check this quote contained in the article? I’d be curious about the details of this.
    “Isley said that tourists and the businesses they support pay for those impacts with sales and property taxes. “The data shows that actually because of the taxes that visitors generate, that we as residents actually pay less taxes,” she said.”

    1. That quote stood out to me too. How?! How do we pay less taxes due to tourism? Where is the money for infrastructure? We need housing and hospitals not baseball stadiums and MORE tourists.

    2. Available through a google search: Visitor spending, visitor supported jobs, and business sales generated $394million in government revenues. State and local taxes alone tallied $238 million in 2021. Each household in Buncombe County would need to be taxed an additional $2,261 to replace the visitor-generated taxes received by state and local governments in 2021.

  23. How long before the homeless industry wipes out the tourism industry? If I came here as a tourist and seen all the trash everywhere, tents everywhere, rampant crime in the open, and drug addicts all over, I would never come back. The TDA is tricking people into coming here.

  24. The folks who run the TDA and the Asheville Chamber are not impartial observers but advocates for their business interests. They are public relations experts and they sound like it. They have been given a wonderful gift in terms of the hotel tax (which should really appear on hotel bills as a “tourism industry advertising subsidy”) and don’t want to do anything to strangle their golden goose. Of course they will only say good things about the tax and how they spend the proceeds and how glorious tourism is. I’m not saying that tourism is bad (though I’d rather it return to the ten-years-ago level) — I’m saying that the city and county is not getting a big enough cut of the tax to do many things that should be done here, with respect to infrastructure and public safety, that will benefit residents. The TDA treats Asheville like mining companies once treated mining towns.

    1. The fact is the folks at the TDA and Chamber are professionals who know what they are doing. They are effective at their jobs which is more than I can say for the city. Maybe that’s why there’s such vitriol. North Carolina occupancy tax guidelines dictate the way the tax is invested. Here is Buncombe County’s so you can read it yourself.
      We are a tourism town. All these businesses you complain about, including hotels, pay property tax, generate sales tax, and new hotels are now extorted to pay into some “public benefits table” that is not put on the backs of any other business. Look at what the city rakes in from property tax from downtown alone and they provide paltry services for it. Maybe the TDA should run the city. Would likely be more effective.

      1. Sure. If the city were simply a rivet factory with simplistic metrics for measuring success. Cities are more than this, or should aspire to be…

  25. In this article you interview a barista, Bri, who has a four-year degree from UNCA and states they cannot make more money in their field than as a barista. Wouldn’t that be a GOOD thing about a tourism job? Somehow, it is positioned to be negative. Also, what’s with quoting a so-called expert from Texas A&M University? How is he qualified to comment? Does he have any factors that deem him credible to comment on Asheville? C’mon Watchdog, if you are seeking some legitimate respect as a news source, you need to step up your game. So many of these articles you write seem to be geared towards “riling” up folks instead of providing a balanced view. I get that there are some downsides to tourism…there are times I find it frustrating…but can’t you try to be fair instead of the continual negativity?

    1. I suppose that quoting so-called experts from out of town is a bit like paying consultants from out of town to advise us on tourism marketing, police recruitment, reparations, micro housing and on and on…let’s wait for the next installments, shall we?

  26. Asheville doesn’t exist for the TDA; the TDA exists for Asheville. It feels like some people have forgotten that. Tourism in this area feels like the brakes have gone out and the car is out of control—and the drivers want to scare you into thinking that if the car stops, we’ll have to pay more taxes, have fewer jobs, and fewer community benefits. It seems to me, however, we don’t have the infrastructure to keep this up this pace and the costs are piling up.

    What Joel Adams said also feels true to me: The affordable housing issue is largely because of tourism’s low-wage jobs.

    And I would ask, do we really need another Thai/Sushi/Indian/fill-in-the-blank restaurant or brewery? Do we really need more hotels? More ugly development? More of everything? Thanks to tourism, we have more, more, more … more traffic, more people, and from what I’ve noticed, more litter on our trails and speeding, aggressive drivers on the Parkway. We also seem to have more people doing dumb things like cuddling bear cubs on the Parkway. I don’t mind paying more in taxes (as Isley suggests we would) to have less, less, less of these things.

    Yes, tourism has done some wonderful things, but the word is out on Asheville as a destination, and it’s long overdue that TDA to stop spending so much on marketing (and the director’s salary) and spend more on our community, on infrastructure and sustainability, and diversifying our economy —before we become the next Gatlinburg or Venice (if we haven’t already).

  27. Tourism makes the owner segment of the economy a lot of money—its workers, not so much.

    Buncombe County needs to do an economic study of *net benefits* of tourism. How much of that tourism income stays in our local area? How much gets exported? How many lodging rooms can our local economy support (including AirBnB) and how do they distort the local housing market? There’s no way to make good policy without good information.

    My non-profit, SUSTAINAVL, argues for a pivot away from over-dependence on tourism, with its crummy wages and boom-bust cycles, and towards a sector with guaranteed growth for the foreseeable future: the sustainability sector. Please have a look at my recent presentation to City Council for more:

  28. The first assumption or “key takeaway” of this article is incorrect. It is incorrect to say, “tourism transformed Asheville from a downtown in decline…” The opposite is true. Local volunteers, local governments, local nonprofit organizations, businesses, and property owners did it. They were the transformers who jump-started the downtown we know today. Over the past 100± years, downtown Asheville experienced numerous ups and downs. I was fortunate to be the City of Asheville’s first Downtown Development Director from 1986-1995.
    The passage of the occupancy tax in 1983 had limited effect on the few downtown hotels and motels in the mid-80s; it had almost no direct effect on the greater center city for many years. Let’s face it… there were few reasons for local or out-of-town visitors to come downtown. In fact, the Tourism Development Authority (TDA) staff explicitly and repeatedly refused to fund or market any progress happening in downtown initially. They didn’t want visitors to be disappointed when they came to a downtown that was obviously in transition: few restaurants, construction disruption, chain link fencing, a few galleries, many vacant storefronts, etc. Not a welcoming sight.
    After waiting for others to address these challenges, it was Asheville City Council and government that finally stepped in to lead the revitalization of downtown Asheville, supported by many stakeholders that evolved into a public/private partnership.
    Following several false starts downtown, an extensive city comprehensive plan, the Asheville 2010 Plan, was adopted as the top priority: preserve, reclaim, and revitalize downtown for local residents. Our vision was to create a stage, a platform for the private sector to be successful, once it was viable and attractive for investors and businesses to do so. We believed if we created a downtown authentic for us, it would likely draw tourists given Asheville’s setting and personality. To say “tourism transformed Asheville from a downtown in decline to destination…” is misplaced and not accurate. It negates the foundational phase of the revitalization process. The actual story is far more complex and interesting than that.
    Major initiatives undertaken during the first phase period over 10 years, were intentionally for and by local businesses, residents, families, property owners, children, etc. Examples of these initiatives and projects include: 3 new parking decks; numerous streetscape/beautification projects; Pack Place Education, Arts, & Science Center on Pack Square; many special events, festivals – large and small – each year; creation of the Asheville Downtown Association; local marketing; development of properties from decades of standing concrete into productive use by local developers for local residents and businesses; conceived and developed the Asheville Urban Trail to teach local history to residents and especially 4th graders; writing of the Downtown Design Review Guidelines using historic preservation; support for various South Pack Square (Eagle/Market) projects; removal of the City transit hub from Pritchard Park; ordinances that allowed outdoor dining, push carts, street entertainment; funding and acquisition of the Grove Arcade building from the Federal Government – rehab, leasing mostly to local residents, businesses, crafters/vendors; strategic investments in lighting, streetscape furniture, fiber, sidewalks, public restrooms, etc.; and perhaps most importantly, the extensive engagement of hundreds of volunteers in every aspect of the revitalization process.
    Similar to other strong, healthy downtowns, it’s irrefutable that downtown Asheville is now the economic engine for Buncombe and surrounding counties. Density and diversity generate the highest yield per square foot for the local government tax base. A unique, viable downtown generates revenue and reduces pressure on residential property taxes across the County. Locally-based commerce generates wealth and profits that multiply over and over. Perhaps equally important is how all visitors feel when downtown. Is it a positive and special place? The safety, appearance, comfort, amenities, and experiences of downtown telegraph assumptions and impressions about all of Asheville. What image do we choose to portray?
    It’s time now to refocus and make caring for our center city a top priority by leadership and volunteers; through capital projects and commerce; by safety and equity; and attention to daily care, details, and operations. This is essential to continue to generate the tremendous benefits we know downtown Asheville can catalyze and produce for the entire County.

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