For seven decades, the local tourism industry has added a lot of muscle to Lancaster County’s economy.

And that industry is getting steadily stronger, a new report shows.

Some 8.85 million visitors came to Lancaster County in 2018, up 2.5% from the prior year, according to a study commissioned by Discover Lancaster, a nonprofit that promotes tourism here.

Tourists here spent $2.24 billion last year, up 4.6% from 2017, the study shows. That supported 16,968 direct tourism-industry jobs at hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues and the like, up 2.5% from the prior year.

The number of direct jobs makes the tourism industry the county’s sixth biggest private-sector, non-farm category in the local economy.

It trails health care/social assistance, manufacturing, retail trade, professional and business services, and construction, according to state Department of Labor & Industry figures for 2018.

The impact of tourist spending on jobs is bigger if you include its effect on firms that provide products and services to tourism enterprises. There’s 8,484 jobs at those firms due to demand from tourism enterprises, the report found.

Factors fueling growth

Discover Lancaster spokesman Joel Cliff saw a number of factors contributing to the year-to-year improvement.

High consumer confidence, a spate of new food-and-beverage venues in downtown Lancaster, the opening of “Jesus” at Sight & Sound Theatres and the debut of the “Merlin’s Mayhem” roller coaster at Dutch Wonderland all fueled the local tourism industry’s growth, he said.

With these upturns in the number of tourists, tourist spending and tourism industry jobs in 2018, these three key measures have improved for nine straight years — every year since the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

The annual number of day and overnight visitors rose 21.4% from 2009 to 2018. Annual spending by those visitors soared 46.9% in that time. Direct tourism-industry jobs grew 18.0% over those years.

Cliff said that era benefited from a robust environment for the tourism industry here, the development of two new niches and the impact of a change in marketing unveiled by Discover Lancaster in 2009.

‘Message is getting through’

Similar to the factors that lifted the tourism industry short term from 2017 to 2018, the long-term improvement was rooted in an expanding economy, a host of new attractions and a rise in international visitors and sports-related visitors, he said.

Also providing a lift, said Cliff, was a change in Discover Lancaster’s marketing to emphasize that the county has more to see and do here than Amish-related destinations, giving potential tourists more reasons to come here and return here.

“The message is getting through,” he said.

That’s important to the community, the report indicates, because a healthy tourism industry brings a significant value to the county’s economy.

Besides creating those jobs — and injecting $481.7 million in wages into the economy annually through the direct jobs alone — the industry pays $230.7 million a year in local, state and federal taxes. 

Tom Baldrige, president and CEO of the Lancaster Chamber, said the tourism industry is an asset to the community in both tangible and intangible ways.

“Lancaster County is incredibly fortunate to have such a strong and resilient tourism sector as one of the mainstays of our community's ongoing economic success,” he said.

“While employment and tax revenues stand out as the most obvious benefits, it can’t be ignored that from branding to customer service, the industry also helps set the standard for ensuring visitors have a positive experience in our county and that experience resonates across all aspects of our image and all sectors of our economy,” Baldrige said.

Whether the industry’s upturn lasts for a 10th consecutive year remains to be seen, Cliff said.

The 2019 tourism season has started out “slowly,” he said, hurt by a number of wet weekends. Dropping gasoline prices and several new attractions have Discover Lancaster “cautiously hopeful” of a rebound.

Study cost $16,000

Discover Lancaster is the official destination-marketing organization for Lancaster County.

It has more than 525 members and an annual budget of about $4 million, funded primarily by county lodging taxes plus member dues and advertising.

Discover Lancaster’s study was prepared by Tourism Economics, which also does tourism research each year for the state. The local study was created using an economic-impact model developed by the federal government in 1978.

Discover Lancaster last had the study done in 2016. Cliff called the new study’s $16,000 cost “a very reasonable investment for the economic and strategic insights it yields for us.”