Tourism chief sees world of potential
BOISE – Idaho’s new state tourism director says she’s seen a “seismic shift” in the perception of her state overseas.
“People are starting to place us in the mountains, which is where we belong, versus we grow potatoes and we’re somewhere in the Midwest, one of those ‘I’ states,” said Karen Ballard.
She knows, because she’s been attending international tourism trade shows for more than a decade on behalf of Idaho.
Ballard credits the shift to a four-state international marketing plan that’s been pitching Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota to the European vacation market. She said it first became apparent about three years ago.
Ballard, who handled international tourism development for the state Department of Commerce before being named tourism chief last month, said the last few years marked a change from people at European trade shows asking, “Where is Idaho?” Now, hoteliers approach her to ask about their prospects for developing new hotels in the state.
“It was a pretty seismic shift,” she said.
Not that Idaho is about to be overrun by crowds of international travelers. Idaho still draws nearly a third of its tourists from within the state, and the single largest out-of-state source for Idaho visitors is Spokane. Twelve percent of Idaho’s visitors come from outside the country, Ballard said, half of those from Canada. The remaining international visitors are mostly from Western Europe, and she credits the “Rocky Mountain International” marketing consortium, which has been pitching the region for a decade and a half to travelers from Germany, England, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy.
Tourism in Idaho is growing at 6 percent or more per year, and travelers in the state spent an estimated $3.82 billion in 2005, according to a study commissioned by the state Department of Commerce and released earlier this year.
“I don’t know what the potential is yet – it’s unlimited,” Ballard said. “We have a fabulous product and not enough people know about it.”
But Ballard, who began her tourism career in 1992 with Elkhorn Resort in Sun Valley, worked for various hotels, and joined the state Commerce Department 15 years ago, said she’s not looking to suddenly ratchet up Idaho’s tourism industry.
“We’ve been growing about 6 to 8 percent a year, and that’s a pretty good growth pattern. Really, I see sustainability as a stronger motivation. … I don’t want to have us at 20 percent growth and all of a sudden have communities overwhelmed because we don’t have the capacity for it.”
That means making sure Idaho has the facilities to host visitors, from full-service hotels to guest ranches to convention centers.
Ballard said Idaho is limited somewhat in its tourism development efforts by meager funding compared to other states, but she said the state’s beauty and attractions are big pluses. “We resonate well if we capture someone’s attention,” she said.
The state’s tourism marketing efforts are funded by motel room tax revenues, which are up 8.6 percent since July 1 over the same period a year ago, despite problems with forest fires in August. Ballard said she’s “thrilled” with those numbers.
She said Idaho’s been drawing visitors looking for niches within the travel market, like whitewater rafting, a string of high-quality golf courses, camping and food and wine tours.
She has nothing against the lowly potato, either. “People like potatoes and they want to eat a potato when they’re here,” she said. Among the messages she’d like to get out: Potatoes grow where there’s high elevation, clear days, sunshine and cool nights. “The things that make for great potatoes are the things that make for a great vacation.”