Ask Lt. Gov. Susanne Crouch about the best places to visit in Indiana, she immediately rattles off Spencer, home to an LGBTQ+ store and community center, sites in Indianapolis, and the Indiana Dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Indiana Dunes is the newest national park in the state and could become one of the big tourist spots in the state, if not the Midwest. The new designation for one of the state’s scenic sites is expected draw new tourists who would stay to experience other places in Indiana.
Crouch and the Indiana General Assembly recognized that because tourism is changing, there needed to be new ways to promote sites like the new national park as well as other destinations.
Out of that need for change came House Enrolled Act 1115. The legislation abolishes the the current Office of Tourism Development, replacing it with a quasi-private entity—the Indiana Destination Development Corp.
As a public-private corporation, it will be governed by a board appointed by Gov. Eric Holcomb and will include members of the private sector who are in the tourism business such as hotels, restaurants, theme attractions and more. It is expected to function much like the Indiana Economic Development Corp., which replaced the Department of Commerce in 2005 as a vehicle for attracting jobs and business to the state.
It will also be able to acquire more money to be used for tourism, as the IDDC will have the authority to pull in money from not only the budget that the General Assembly allocates, but also from the private tourism sector.
This new corporation will take over all of the tasks and duties of the old department and will have modified the structure of the administration by next June 30. While the new corporation is being created, the Department of Tourism Development will continue to operate as the principle vehicle to urge people to visit Indiana.
Rep. Michael Karickhoff, R-Kokomo, authored the new bill after being a part of the special task force designed to look into the current tourism landscape.
“People are quick to point out that the state doesn’t do what neighboring states do in terms of funding levels,” he said.
Currently, Indiana budgets a little more than $4 million a year on the tourism department plus about $970,000 for marketing. Those numbers are much smaller than the amounts spent to lure tourists to Michigan, whose tourism department has a $35 million budget, or Ohio, with a $10 million budget.
Even though Indiana may not lure the number of tourists that other states draw, the industry has an impact on the state’s economy.
A study released at the end of 2018 reported that 2017 was a record year with $12.7 billion in tourism spending. That is the last year for which data is available.
The same study, which was conducted by an independent marketing firm, reported that visitors went to 80 million destinations throughout the state. Overall, the tourism industry supports nearly 200,000 jobs.
Karickhoff said lawmakers recognize the impact of the industry, which is why a study committee was created in the 2017 session of the General Assembly. That study committee looked at how other states support their tourism industries and found that there is no single model.
On the private sector side, they were looking for something a little different, said Jim Epperson, executive director, SoIN Tourism, based in Jeffersonville.
“We wanted to have a structure to first and foremost create a better partnership relationship between the industry and the office (IDDC) and to measure the results of our cooperative efforts together,” he said.
Patrick Tamm, who works with the Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association and helped lawmakers look into ideas for the bill along with others, looked at the states surrounding Indiana to understand what was a good starting point for Indiana’s tourism approach.
“If you think about Michigan, like Pure Michigan, the first response was that people ridiculed it and today it is one of the best brands out there…that’s what we are looking for.”
After the bill passed through the house, Sen. Chip Perfect, R-Lawrenceburg, took over as the first sponsor in the Senate. Perfect knows about tourism in Indiana as his family owns one of two ski slopes in Indiana, Perfect North Slopes.
The senator believes that the new bill will help to change people’s ideas about moving to the state.
“It’s not just about bringing people in to visit, but tourism is, in some way, is highlighting the assets a state has relative to tourism, is an important economic driver in terms of getting people to move to the state.”
For Crouch, who has traveled to nearly every part of the state during her term, calls Indiana tourism’s best kept secret. With the new direction and a new tourism board, she said she hopes Indiana become the worst kept secret.