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HOT wave of tourism in post-pandemic Highland Lakes

La Quinta Marble Falls

La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Marble Falls was the highest-performing location in the hotel chain in the state of Texas in 2022's fourth financial quarter, according to Marble Falls Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Christian Fletcher. The city has seen an enormous growth in tourism post-pandemic. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series titled “Small Towns, Big Changes” that launched in the August issue of The Picayune Magazine. The series delves into the facts and figures behind the rapid development in the Highland Lakes and what it means for the people who call this region home, whether newcomers or longtime locals. 

Tourism dollars hit record numbers across the Highland Lakes during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The boost affected different communities in different ways, but the region’s draw as a vacation destination has undeniably grown in recent years.

“Personally, I think (the growth in tourism) is a good thing,” Burnet County Tourism Director Blaire Manning told DailyTrib.com. “I think that if we stay ahead of the growth and stay aware of it, then we can mold that growth into how it has to be. If we can organize our chaos, then we really have a chance to put Burnet County on the map.”

Manning’s position as tourism director actually came into being as a result of the post-pandemic boom. Her position was originally part time but turned to full time after hotel occupancy tax (HOT) revenues surged in Burnet County’s 2020-21 fiscal year.

Hotel occupancy tax is collected from hotels, motels, and short-term rental properties within a government’s given jurisdiction. The taxes are unique in that they can only be used to fund further tourism opportunities, such as events, advertising, paying music acts, improving the walkability of an area, or anything that could put more “heads in beds.” 

Manning manages Burnet County’s tourism dollars to promote events like the Bluebonnet Festival and Bluebonnet Airshow in Burnet and MayFest, LakeFest, and Walkway of Lights in Marble Falls.

It’s impossible to track how tourists spend their money in the Highland Lakes, but HOT collections year to year paint a picture of how many visitors stay in the area’s temporary lodging. Entities across the board saw increases in HOT collections immediately after the pandemic, and some have seen enormous leaps over the past two years.

HOT NUMBERS

Burnet County, 40 percent increase:

  • FY 2019-20 — $480,058
  • FY 2020-21 — $674,970

Numbers dropped back down to $460,202 in FY 2021-22 but are on track to reach $500,000 in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2023.

City of Marble Falls, 54 percent increase:

  • FY 2019-20 — $533,276
  • FY 2020-21 — $824,441

Numbers continued to rise in FY 2021-22 over $1 million, a further 27 percent increase from the previous year. The city has raked in $640,077 so far in FY 2022-23, which will probably end up being a drop since the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

City of Granite Shoals, 39 percent increase: 

  • FY 2019-20 — $21,156
  • FY 2020-21 — $29,458

HOT numbers continued to climb, reaching $55,778 in FY 2021-22, an 89 percent increase over the previous year! The city is still raking in funds in FY 2022-23 with a reported $74,000 collected as of Aug. 25, amounting to a 32 percent increase from its already sky-high numbers the previous year.

Llano County, 70 percent increase:

  • 2019 — $233,814
  • 2020 — $398,421

Those numbers continued to rise in 2021, reaching $686,279, a 72 percent jump. While 2022 numbers slumped to $465,219, that amount is still significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels. Llano County has already reported $255,166 in funds for 2023 with four months remaining in the year.

An estimated 84 percent of the county’s HOT money came from short-term rentals and lodging businesses near the lakes, Precinct 2 Commissioner Linda Raschke told DailyTrib.com. The county has at least 199 short-term rental properties, which are mostly distributed among the unincorporated communities around the lakes, including Kingsland and Buchanan Dam.

City of Burnet, 16 percent: 

  • FY 2019-20 — $164,728
  • FY 2020-21 — $191,587

The city saw a 15 percent increase to $221,206 in FY 2021-22, but it is on track for a significant decrease, dropping below pre-pandemic numbers to $145,567 in FY 2022-23.

The collection of HOT funds is dependent upon rooms for rent to vacationers, which explains why Burnet’s increases are more modest than those of its neighbors. The city (population 6,676 as of 2021) only has two hotels, three motels, and no registered short-term rentals, despite being nearly the same size as Marble Falls (pop. 7,227 as of 2021), a city with seven hotels, a motel, and at least 14 registered short-term rentals.

Because of the nature of HOT funds, the more taxes collected, the more funding for tourism, which, in turn, promotes further HOT fund collections, creating a self-improving system that fuels growth in the hospitality industry. 

Granite Shoals, for example, recently approved spending up to $40,000 worth of HOT funds to improve the city’s parks and make room for the 2023 U.S. Junior Steer Wrestling Championship. While the upgrades will certainly help the championship, they will also pave the way for future events, which will bring in more visitors and generate more HOT funds, making it easier to host more events.

The lakes themselves are a huge draw, but Manning also noted that the wineries, breweries, hiking trails, golf courses, bird-watching opportunities, fishing spots, hunting ranches, parks, wildflowers, off-road adventuring, live music, and scores of other recreational opportunities make the area a desirable destination for tourists.

“I think we are kind of a unique area in that, within a 30-minute drive, you could find all of this,” she said.

dakota@thepicayune.com