Wichita officials, venues report positive signs of tourism turnaround

Wichita's tourism and visitor business looks to be coming out of a three-year slump. That's what the city's top tourism official said this week.

Following the worst national recession in decades, one that left a deep impression locally, the tourism and visitors business in Wichita appears to be on a rebound, said John Rolfe, president and CEO of Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"It's still in somewhat of a recovery mode," he said. "It certainly hasn't returned to a pre-2008 level, but it has gradually increased."

Rolfe said it may be late this year or early next before the local industry sees a return to activity last seen three or so years ago.

Operators of tourism-related businesses said they are seeing positive signs, too.

"I think the industry is getting pretty healthy again," said Jeff Arensdorf, president of Village Tours & Travel, a bus charter company and trip organizer.

He said increases in airfares, hotel rates and cruise line tickets typically signal a rebound in tourism, plus "our activity is pretty good."

The recession recorded its biggest impact to the state's tourism and visitor industry in 2009. According to the Kansas Travel & Tourism Division, transient guest tax collections reached a high of $32 million in 2008 before dropping 11 percent in 2009.

Tourism's area impact

Tourism, conventions and business travelers represent a fair amount of economic impact for the Wichita area.

According to Go Wichita's most recent statistics, 6 million visitors to the Wichita area contribute an economic impact of $702 million annually. The bureau also said tourism spending generates nearly $20 million annually in sales, property and transient guest taxes for Wichita and Sedgwick County.

Rolfe said that over the past few years, a lot of money has been and continues to be put into the area's tourism and visitor infrastructure.

Projects such as the $205.5 million Intrust Bank Arena, the $29 million renovation under way of the Drury Plaza Broadview Hotel and the new $12 million Fairfield Inn and Suites at WaterWalk are among those that Rolfe considers part of the area's tourism infrastructure.

Those and other hotel and venue projects not only boost tourism spending, but they also create jobs.

"It's huge," Rolfe said. "Those are real jobs and real money."

Becky Blake, director of Kansas Travel & Tourism, said the Wichita area plays an important part in attracting visitors to the state, because of its size, proximity to the Flint Hills, and its Western heritage.

"Certainly Wichita is a very, very important piece of what Kansas offers," Blake said.

Major venues' activity

Officials from two major attractions that draw out-of town visitors reported mixed attendance results last year.

But both expect higher attendance figures when they close out 2011.

Exploration Place, the children's museum and science center, is expecting its attendance to increase this fiscal year from the 169,000 it recorded in fiscal year 2010. The center's fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.

Spokeswoman Christina Bluml said officials there are expecting to have attendance of 175,000 this fiscal year, bolstered by refurbished exhibits, including its dome theater, and the traveling exhibit, "CSI: The Experience," which opens on Memorial Day.

"That's a big part of it," Bluml said.

Sedgwick County Zoo, the area's biggest tourist attraction, saw its visitor count slip to 548,919 in 2010 after recording 654,494 visitors in 2009, said spokeswoman Christan Baumer.

"We didn't have a new exhibit and it was probably also the economy," Baumer said as the reasons for lower attendance at the zoo last year.

The zoo expects attendance to increase slightly this year, to 550,000, she said.

"We're being cautiously optimistic," Baumer said.

She said that according to the zoo's economic impact study in 2007, 51 percent of the zoo's visitors were from outside Sedgwick County and came specifically to see the zoo.