Tourism for taxes or good jobs?

Tourism is widely valued by cities across the United States. Public officials and their economic advisers champion the cause of tourism by using a variety of economic models to show how tourist spending gets converted to restaurant tabs and then to employee wages. In turn, these wages are used to buy groceries and consumables that bolster the economy. Driven by this logic, the multiplying tourist dollar has inspired public-private partnerships to develop hotels, attract visitors and build comfortable meeting spaces and entertainment venues for their enjoyment. A significant body of literature, primarily from neo-liberal economists, supports public investment in all aspects of tourism.

The enthusiasm for the tourist dollar within city halls and chambers of commerce is not without detractors. Such important urban theorists, as Susan Fainstein and David Harvey have raised concerns about the distribution of benefits within the tourism industry (subsectors that comprise the tourism industry are generally the lowest paid segment of any local economy). In The Just City (2010), Fainstein reflects on two decades of research on urban tourism and, given little movement toward a just end, suggests – somewhat in passing — that significant public subsidies given to private businesses within the tourism sector should empower residents and city planners to pursue policy options which achieve a fair distribution of economic benefits (Fainstein, 2010, p. 183). In the Rebel Cities (2012), Harvey observes the array of private rent-seekers trading on tourist attractions built and maintained with public investment. He considers this an appropriation of capital which belongs to the community (Harvey, 2012, pp. 105–106).

Urban interest in tourism, from a local economic development perspective, gained traction in the early 1990’s as cities struggled to retain traditional employers in central business districts. Fainstein joined with Dennis Judd and Lily Hoffman to compile two edited volumes on the topic; The Tourist City (1990) and Cities and Visitors (2003). The editors included low wages among a number of issues that planners should consider when developing a regulatory framework to guide the sector (Hoffman, Fainstein, & Judd, 2003, p. 9), although much of the burden for increasing wages was left to labor organizations and community organizers (Judd & Fainstein, 1999, p. 24). Twenty years removed from this spike in interest, Fainstein touched on tourism in The Just City (2010), again placing the burden of equitable wages on community organizers, while offering a new justification for action based on two decades of pubic investment in the sector, suggesting, “With the involvement of the state …comes the interests of nonowners of capital in limiting the discretion of investors and injecting concerns of justice into policy making (Fainstein, 2010, p. 183).”

Fainstein’s perspective is shared by heterodox economists, sociologists and urban theorists, but it remains a minority viewpoint across the full spectrum of academicians and practitioners (Ren, Pritchard, & Morgan, 2010, p. 887). The perspectives of neo-liberal economists dominate the field. Economists. like Larry Dwyer, focus on business profits with little or no priority given to the externalities associated with low wages within the industry. Dwyer et al’s voluminous text, Tourism Economics and Policy illustrates this point. With twenty-one chapters encompassing 855 pages, the authors declare there was not enough room to treat labor economics, or synthesize the fragments within the book that touched on economic sustainability (Dwyer, Forsyth, & Dwyer, 2010, p. 5,33). Others bypass labor to promote economic benefits to the community at large. Boley et al focus on promoting this point, suggesting governments consider “strategies to increase their residents’ attitudes toward tourism development,” and, “promote the indirect personal economic benefits of tourism, including tax burden relief and the services subsidized by tourism dollars” (Boley, McGehee, Perdue, & Long, 2014, pp. 46–47).

Most public officials have joined with neo-liberal economists in sidelining any policy discussions regarding the wage structure in the tourism industry. As an example, three of the largest states for tourism, California, Florida and Virginia, while actively promoting business interests within the industry, are silent on the wage structure of those working in the industry.


In Florida’s strategic plan for tourism, the stated goal is to maximize the economic impact of travel and tourism, with an objective to achieve $100 billion in tourism related spend by 2020 (Visit Florida, n.d.).


In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the responsibility for promoting tourism falls to the Virginia Tourism Corporation (VTC), a department under direction of the Governor. The corporation still operates under a vision plan adopted in 2002. The goal of the plan is to increase tourism market-share and annual visitor spending in Virginia, and the objectives are to 1) increase visitor volume, length-of-stay and spending in Virginia, and 2) increase tourism funding annually, including identification of new sources, to advance tourism marketing and development (Virginia Tourism Corporation, Commonwealth of Virginia, 2002).


In California, tourism officials set three goals in their 2012 strategic plan: 1) Garner 91% or better approval of a 2013 state-wide referendum on rental car assessments (they achieved 93%), 2) elevate legislators’ perceptions of the importance of the industry, and 3) raise consumer perceptions of California and increase media chatter with positive press articles that mention California and the economic benefits travel (Visit California, n.d.).


Strikingly, the missions, goals and objectives of all three states mention nothing of community benefits or employee wages, even though the accommodation sector is nested within the lowest paying industry sector in all three states (Table 1).
Table 1 Median wages by NAICS Sector in 2014 by Sector for Key States

Table 1


At the local level, the exclusion of wages from tourism development and promotion policies is also prevalent. A 2014 survey on local economic development conducted by the International City Managers Association (ICMA) found that among five potential priorities (tax base, jobs, quality of life, environmental sustainability and social equity) city officials placed increasing the local tax base first and addressing social equity (i.e., distribution of economic benefits) last. Of the 32 activities identified to address these economic development priorities, tourism promotion was ranked second, only behind quality of life investments (arts, culture, education and recreation) (International City Managers Association, 2014). The proximity of increasing revenues (tax base) as a priority, and tourism promotion as the means to this end is no coincidence.


About the author: Bill Farley has 30 years of experience in local economic and community development as a public official, entrepreneur and corporate executive. He is a former instructor of public policy and public finance at the University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy. He is currently advising organizations on local economic policy while completing a PhD in Public Policy and Administration at Virginia Commonwealth University. 



Boley, B. B., McGehee, N. G., Perdue, R. R., & Long, P. (2014). Empowerment and resident attitudes toward tourism: Strengthening the theoretical foundation through a Weberian lens. Annals of Tourism Research, 49, 33–50.

Dwyer, L., Forsyth, P., & Dwyer, W. (2010). Tourism Economics and Policy. Channel View Publications.

Fainstein, S. S. (2010). The Just City. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Harvey, D. (2012). Rebel cities: From the right to the city to the urban revolution. Verso.

Hoffman, L. M., Fainstein, S. S., & Judd, D. R. (Eds.). (2003). CIties and Visitors; Regulating People, Markets and City Space. Maiden, MA: Blackwell.
International City Managers Association. (2014). Economic Development 2014 Survey Results.

Judd, D. R., & Fainstein, S. S. (Eds.). (1999). The Tourist City. Yale University Press.

Ren, C., Pritchard, A., & Morgan, N. (2010). Constructing tourism research; A critical inquiry. Annals of Tourism Research, 37(4), 885–904.

Virginia Tourism Corporation, Commonwealth of Virginia. (2002). Vision Plan for Virginia’s Tourism Industry. Retrieved from

Visit California. (n.d.). Visit California’s Strategic Business Plan; 2001-2016.

Visit Florida. (n.d.). 2020 Strategic Plan. Retrieved from


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