Off a rocky road in the border resort town of Terlingua, Texas, Daryl Eby stands outside his Big Bend Stargazer Airbnb, featuring a refurbished vintage Airstream trailer perched on a hill with sweeping views of the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert.
“This I would classify as glamping,” he said. “From here on the deck, we have a view of Big Bend National Park, the Chisos Mountains, Castolon Peak.”
Eby manages more than 30 short-term rentals here, making it one of the largest local accommodation business owners. Recently, he has also raised concerns about taxes related to accommodation.
In the booming tourism industry of the Big Bend region of West Texas, frustrations have grown over a particular type of lodging tax.
These taxes for the use of hotels are not average taxes. In Texas, state law limits how these special taxes can be used. The money should mainly go back to promoting tourism – with little margin. Taxes can be used for arts programs and historic preservation, but they can’t pay for things like roads or public housing.
That has some in West Texas questioning whether these separate taxes make sense anymore. Because Big Bend is already seeing record tourism numbers, Eby has argued that the tax rate should be lower.
“They’re basically throwing money away right now on additional advertising, most of which are probably not seeing any significant or needed return on investment,” he said.
Brewster County has a 7% lodging tax rate that is tacked onto a guest’s short-term rental bill. The county then funnels that money to a local tourism council that runs marketing campaigns. This fiscal year, county records show the tax has already brought in more than $1 million.
“It raises the question, you know, when can we say it’s enough to spend?” said Sara Allen Colando, a local county commissioner. “If you spend $1 million advertising Brewster County, is that enough? Or you have to spend $1.2 [million] next year, should you spend $1.4 [million] next year. Can you just say, ‘OK, $1 million a year is enough?’
Colando said she would like to see the county’s tourism marketing budget “plateau,” then officials could find something else to do with the rest of the money.
Robert Alvarez, who chairs the county’s tourism council, said he’s on board with the idea. According to Alvarez, the council is already planning to use some of the tax money for things the law allows, such as new visitor centers with amenities like public restrooms.
“My organization doesn’t have to keep bringing in more and more people,” he said. “We’re at a steady level now.”
However, what is “sustainable” here is up for debate.
The surge in tourists has come with the same challenges other communities face, such as housing shortages as Airbnb numbers increase and water supplies strained as people build new properties.
The state’s hotel industry has largely opposed any broad expansion of lodging tax laws that would allow the money to be used to address those kinds of infrastructure problems, though lawmakers have approved some specific expansions in certain cities.
“The trade-off has always been: This is something the industry will tolerate, provided the money is used to promote the area as a tourist destination,” said Justin Bragiel with the trade group Texas Hotel & Lodging Association.
“I understand that there are some communities that will say, ‘We don’t want any more visitors or tourists,'” he said. “But you know, that ship has sailed, so to speak.”
However, Daryl Eby said he thinks if lawmakers were to allow some changes in the use of taxes here, there are many things the community could use the money for.
“Grants to help a restaurant owner open, or to encourage someone to open a new gas station, or to provide housing assistance to locals,” he said. “There’s a lot of need here.”
Meanwhile, there has recently been a problem with some Big Bend rental owners not paying these special taxes. Officials are gearing up to pursue these unpaid taxes, so it’s likely that this rural area will have even more tourism-oriented cash on hand in the future. But at least for now, it’s also likely that the money won’t be used to address some of the region’s most pressing problems.
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