GALVESTON — Island tourism managers have their eyes on a new market and a message for its members — beaches aren’t all Galveston has to offer.
In effort to lure a bigger share of visitors who’ll stay longer and spend more than the typical beach-bound day trippers, local tourism stakeholders are shifting their promotional efforts to focus more on the island’s arts and cultural offerings.
The shift comes as some officials, including the mayor and the city’s top tourism managers, have begun asking whether the annual flow of tourists onto and off of the island is nearing a saturation point.
Galveston’s tourism volume has increased by 60 percent since 2009, up from 4.5 million visitors to about 7.2 million last year, according to the Galveston Park Board of Trustees, which promotes island tourism.
Last year’s 7.2 million visitors was a 2.9 percent increase over the 7 million who crossed the causeway in 2017, and many of those came for the island’s burgeoning arts and cultural scene, officials said.
Now, the time has come to plan for the future and balance the demands of tourists with the needs of residents, board Executive Director Kelly de Schaun said during the recent Tourism Summit. The annual event draws in tourism stakeholders across island and the state.
“It’s not about increasing the numbers of people,” de Schaun said. “It’s about increasing their spending on the island.”
In the past few years, the park board’s focus has turned to boosting overnight, rather than single-day visitation. People who visit Galveston for a day spend an averaged $49 per person, according to park board data. People who stay the night spend an averaged $115 per person, according to the data.
As a city with a rich, deep history and a community that’s home to artists, Galveston has all the tools it needs to market itself as a destination for culture, said J.P. Bryan, founder of The Bryan Museum.
“We don’t need to create anything anew,” Bryan said.
A community that’s rich in arts and culture is not only attractive to tourists, but also is a benefit to residents, said Megan Barber King, senior vice president of Cruise Lines International Association.
With too many visitors, a community can lose its sense of place, she said.
“Tourists want things to be authentic to the place,” King said.
Visitors would rather shop in local businesses and buy art made by locals, she said.
What Galveston should do better is market the arts scene to Houston, said Maureen Patton, executive director of The Grand 1894 Opera House.
Houston has its own cultural experience, but that’s different than Galveston’s, she said.
“That neighbor of ours up the road is certainly prime for us to tap into because the experience is different,” Patton said. “Over 80 percent of our audience comes from out of town and the majority from the greater Houston area.”
People who come to Galveston for cultural events tend to spend more on average than people who just spend a day at the beach, she said.
Galveston visitors spent 4.6 percent more in 2018 than they did in 2017, $871.9 million versus $833.7 million, according to park board data. Last year, tourists spent 45 percent, $409.7 million, of their travel costs on lodging, food and beverages, according to the data.
Galveston already has the tools to market itself as an arts destination, said Ann Graham, executive director of Texans for the Arts.
The advocacy group seeks to retain and increase state and federal funding for arts.
“It’s here,” Graham said. “You have all of these ingredients here in a really, really remarkable way.”
Promoting Galveston as a destination for arts and culture will require creating a network of local artists who feel supported by each other and their city, Graham said.
Part of Galveston’s challenge is simply getting the word out about what Galveston offers, King said. Many people view Galveston as only a beach destination.
“One of the things you need to do is give your current visitors the tools to be that marketing arm,” King said.
In indirect effects, visitors to Galveston generated $1.2 billion in total business sales last year, according to park board data.