Wichita may not strike locals as a tourist destination, but it strikes tourists that way.
A report by the U.S. Travel Association shows that domestic travelers spent $702 million in Wichita's four-county metropolitan statistical area in 2008, generated 11,800 jobs and produced $62 million in state and local taxes.
Food and recreation industries received most of the money, while the cash-strapped state received $40 million of the income and sales taxes created by tourism in the area.
Although the numbers didn't surprise John Rolfe, president and CEO of the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, they were encouraging.
"We know visitors have a large impact on our economy locally and statewide," he said. "I guess we're pleased to see the numbers were so significant for an area our size."
The study for 2008, the most recent year analyzed by the U.S. Travel Association, didn't show how many tourists visited the area. The organization studies only the economic impact of tourism, Rolfe said.
Restaurants and other food-service businesses received 39 percent of the spending, or $271.8 million.
Amusement and recreation businesses received $155.2 million; lodging businesses such as hotels and campgrounds $122.2 million; retail shops $84.4 million; and transportation services such as taxis and tourist buses $68 million.
The 11,800 jobs were people employed as a result of tourism who wouldn't have had those jobs if travelers hadn't visited the area in 2008, Rolfe said.
Employees in tourism-related businesses earned $180 million in payroll income in 2008, the study said.
The U.S. Travel Association defined domestic tourists as U.S. residents who traveled to Sumner, Harvey, Butler and Sedgwick counties from 50 miles or more away on day or overnight trips, and stayed overnight in paid accommodations.
The association uses the North American Industry Classification System, which is the standard used by federal statistical agencies to classify businesses for the purpose of collecting and analyzing data.
That allows it to pinpoint tourism-related industries and get detailed information, Rolfe said.
It is the first time Go Wichita has commissioned the U.S. Travel Association to do the study. The association does such studies for cities nationwide, which will allow Wichita to compare its tourism progress to other areas its size, Rolfe said.
No 2008 comparison information for other cities is available yet. Rolfe said a meeting will be held soon with an official from the U.S. Travel Association to get more data.
The last tourism economic impact study was a telephone survey done by Wichita State University in 2004. That study showed tourism had about half the economic impact — $356 million — as the latest study, Rolfe said.
The difference can be due to different methodologies, but some is due to market growth, he said.
Jeremy Hill, director of WSU's Center for Economic Development and Business Research, said the numbers from the U.S. Travel Association "looked within reason."
The association is the top tourism organization that tracks and analyzes economic impact data, he said.
"They know what they're doing," Hill said.
The numbers reflect the fact that tourism should be defined more broadly than going to the beach for a vacation.
People who come to Wichita for their kid's T-ball tournament, or a concert or a sports event, are tourists, Hill said.
"We definitely have an impact on this region when it comes to tourism," he said.
Michael Phipps, general manager of the Hilton Wichita Airport, agrees.
"In a strange way, we're bigger than we think we are," he said. "We have people that come from all over the world.
He employs 230 people at his hotel and has a payroll of $110,000 every two weeks.
"That's a lot of money," he said.
"People don't often think about the magnitude of what the travel business does in Wichita," Phipps said.
Rolfe said the area's western and aviation history continues to draw visitors, while its cultural, sports and other attractions are enhanced now by new arenas.
Wichita should continue to increase tourism, he said.
"A lot of people have done amusement parks and beaches and are looking for something new," Rolfe said.