Grains of sand may not carry the weight of Athlon chips or barrels of West Texas intermediate when it comes to gauging economic muscle, but to the convention and visitors bureaus charged with promoting Galveston, Corpus Christi, and South Padre Island, there’s gold in them thar dunes. To these titans of coastal tourism, the beach is everything: their community’s greatest natural resource, most reliable generator of revenue, and most significant employer. Small wonder, then, that each CVB claims its city is the Big Kahuna and trots out facts to back up the brag.
Galveston, which has a permanent population of 60,000 and is the state’s oldest resort town, dating back to 1839, says it’s number one based on the 7 million people who travel there each year, with a direct economic benefit of $372 million. Corpus Christi, meanwhile, touts tourism’s more than $600 million benefit to its economy. (For purposes of calculating that number, the city includes the resort towns of Port Aransas, Rockport-Fulton, and Mustang Island as part of the Corpus Christi Bay Area, which has a population of 500,000). And South Padre Island, which has only come into its own as a tourist spot in the past thirty years, makes the per capita case: 3.5 million visitors a year to a town of 2,000.
So who’s right? In a manner of speaking, they all are, a conclusion that will probably frustrate the CVBs, which exist to sell (that is, hype) the destinations they represent. What each is looking for is a magic bullet, a single, salient fact that will separate them from the pack, but the truth is that they’re very much alike in what they’re trying to do—grow the local coffers by stimulating the expenditure of vast sums by the vast hordes seeking relief from the Texas heat—and in the dilemma they face. Most of their visitors are Texans who come to the beach in the morning and leave at night, spending a minimum amount of cash along the way. Galveston, for example, estimates that 85 percent of the island’s guests are day-trippers. Whereas the real money is in putting heads in beds, as they say in the trade: Overnight stays translate into hotel occupancy taxes and more spending at restaurants, stores, and attractions.
Where the CVBs differ, however, is in how they’re funded and how they dole out funds for the purpose of attracting said heads. The Galveston CVB, for instance, is overseen by the Galveston Park Board, whose trustees are appointed by the city council. Its annual budget of about $2 million comes from the 7 cents the city receives from each dollar collected in hotel occupancy taxes. Of that 7 cents, 4 cents are spoken for in advance: 1 cent pays for beach cleanup, 1 pays for lifeguards, 1 goes to convention center operations at Moody Gardens, and 1 goes to arts and historic preservation. Separately, about a fourth of the total budget is earmarked specifically for promoting events like Mardi Gras, Dickens on the Strand, and SpringFest and for sloganeering (“Escape and Explore”) on billboards, in newspapers and magazines, and on the radio.
The activities of Corpus’ CVB are supported through a similar arrangement (it receives 41 percent of the city’s hotel occupancy tax), but it sees no real benefit in advertising. Two years ago its $750,000 annual ad budget (from a total budget of $2.2 million) was cut by $400,000, with part of the balance used to hire a marketing director. The CVB of South Padre, which has an annual budget of $4 million, is likewise an arm of the city government and gets its funding much in the way the others do; it receives 7 cents of every dollar collected in hotel occupancy taxes. Its advertising budget is $450,000.
While each destination targets a primary market—Galveston, Houston; Corpus, San Antonio; South Padre, the Rio Grande Valley—the dire need for heads in beds has prompted them to pool their resources to sell the entire coast through the Beaches of Texas program, which is aimed at potential visitors from out of state and out of the country (the reasoning is that the farther people travel to the beach, the longer they’re likely to stay). The idea came from the Corpus CVB’s president and CEO, Char Beltran, who had initiated a similar cooperative venture with Las Vegas and San Diego when she headed travel-industry sales in Phoenix. After she came to Texas two years ago, she realized that doing a better job of selling Corpus Christi required changing the way outsiders thought of the state. “People from a distance had this image of Texas as only cowboys, Longhorns, and the desert,” she says. To combat that perception, each CVB pledged to contribute $25,000 for three years, with the tourism division of the Texas Department of Economic Development providing non-monetary assistance. The program kicked off in July, so it’s too early to tell how well it’s working, but the anecdotal evidence is promising. Beltran reports that a Canadian charter company is looking at bringing groups to Corpus and South Padre this fall and next spring, with an estimated annual impact to each of $1 million. And more business could be on the way. “I’ve been showing around a lot of travel writers from England and Germany, and they had no idea that Texas had beaches,” says Christine Hopkins, the public relations manager of the Galveston CVB. “Dallas never showed J. R. Ewing at the coast.”
So what does the future hold? In addition to focusing on building an off-season clientele (the better to raise the occupancy rates of existing hotels and condos), each locale is busily trying to sell amenities away from the beach: the Strand, Moody Gardens, and historic homes in Galveston; the Bayfront arts district, the U.S.S. Lexington, and the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus; and in the case of South Padre, nearby attractions such as the Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge across the bay and the new Laguna Madre Nature Trail—not to mention Mexico, which is a mere thirty-minute drive from the island.
For all the added attractions, though, the sales pitch ultimately boils down to the sand, which is why being green has become a key strategy for getting green. “We’re one of the few examples of market-driven pro-environment policies enacted in Texas, from protecting dunes and cleaning the beach daily to a horizon free of oil rigs offshore,” says Dan Quandt, the executive director of the South Padre Island CVB. “People save money to have this experience. For us, that translates into jobs and improving the economy. If we don’t have clean beaches, we have little to sell.” Thus, SPI, through its Economic Development Corporation, is funding a beach-cleaning-and-maintenance program and dredging Tompkins Channel in the Laguna Madre to facilitate boat traffic. Galveston began addressing that issue in 1995 with a $5.9 million beach-restoration project funded by a city bond election and the state water development board. In Corpus, Beltran said there is a movement to figure out how to use seaweed commercially; it’s an unsightly nuisance when it washes ashore in great quantities but has potential value as a fertilizer or a nutritional supplement.
Each effort is designed to send a similar message: Come on in, the water’s fine. For tourists—and destinations after their dollars—you don’t have to say it twice.