Region saw hefty jump in tourism spending last year

Direct visitor spending in the Berkshires increased for the eighth straight year in 2017, going from $462 million to $517 million, according to the state statistics. Main Street in Lenox buzzes with foot traffic during the Lenox Apple Squeeze in this file photo from 2014.

PITTSFIELD — Tourism helped drive the Berkshire economy in 2017, contributing 8 percent more to economic growth than the year before, according to figures from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.

That 8 percent rise in the total economic impact of tourism in the county — from $764 million in 2016 to $827 million last year — is said to be unusual.

"It's the biggest we've seen in several years," said 1Berkshire President and CEO Jonathan Butler, whose organization includes the former Berkshire Visitors Bureau.

Yearly increases are normally 1 to 2 percent, Butler said.

Direct visitor spending in the Berkshires increased for the eighth straight year in 2017, going from $462 million to $517 million, according to the state statistics. That sum was $208 million when the increases began in 2009.

The state releases its tourism figures for the previous year each December. The 2018 figures won't be available until next year.

Several factors contributed to the hefty growth in tourism-related economic impact in the Berkshires last year, Butler said.

Expansion projects at Berkshire cultural institutions played a role, particularly the debut of Building 6 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams in June 2017.

"That was a big contributor," he said. "It led to a huge increase in visitations in Northern Berkshire starting in June. But it's just the continuation of a trend. Exhibitions at cultural institutions, new productions at theaters, new lodging venues, all these things make an impact on the numbers."

The increase in tourism dollars in the Berkshires is leading to more private investment in local projects, Butler said. Examples include the development of luxury condominiums at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, the Tourists site in North Adams and even Wayfair's recent decision to build a call center in Pittsfield that is expected to employ 300 people.

"Money is being invested, more things are happening, and the visitors are following it," Butler said.

The majority of Berkshire visitor spending in 2017 came from domestic travelers, who accounted for $456.6 million of that $517 million sum.

The tourism office defines visitors as those who travel to a destination at least 50 miles from their homes. Top places of origin for visitors to the Berkshires are the New York City and Boston metropolitan areas, the rest of Massachusetts and New England. International travelers to the Berkshires accounted for an additional $60.4 million in spending.

The top three destinations for Berkshire visitors last year were museums and historic sites (79.5 percent); performing arts venues (59.2 percent); and outdoor recreation (36.9 percent).

Visitor spending resulted in $27 million in state tax receipts, and returned $14.9 million in tax revenue to the Berkshires that municipalities were able to use on local services.

The increased funding spurs private investment in Berkshire downtowns.

"The ripple effect is that our downtowns are cooler because of it," Butler said. "It's creating more vibrance. It's acting as a catalyst for all these market-rate housing projects that there is demand for. We definitely think all these things connect."

Tourism also had an effect on the Berkshire job market in 2017, creating 4,344 jobs with a payroll of $137.5 million. The Berkshire County unemployment rate typically recedes during the summer months when the local tourism season is at its height.

Statewide, direct visitor spending in Massachusetts totaled $22.8 billion in 2017, with $18.7 billion coming from domestic travelers and $4.1 billion from international visitors.

Tourism-related businesses accounted for 149,412 state jobs with a payroll of $5.3 billion. Total state visitor spending generated $943.4 million in state tax receipts, including $89 million that was returned to local communities.

Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.