Lt. Governor Nungesser touts tourism’s value to Terrebonne region

While the Bayou Region deals with a sluggish economy and the state with budget issues, Terrebonne Parish tourism officials are working to keep attracting visitors.

Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser visited the parish’s tourist center in Gray last Tuesday as part of his five-day, 14-city tour across Louisiana to promote the state’s tourism industry. Nungesser met with the Houma Area Convention and Visitors Bureau staff to hear Terrebonne’s plan to bring in more tourists.

Nungesser touted Louisiana’s attractiveness as a tourist destination. He said the state had 28.9 million visitors in 2015, a 1 million-person increase from the previous year. Tourists spent $11.5 billion statewide last year, which generated $843 million in tax revenue, he said.

Sharon Alford, director of the Houma convention bureau, met with Nungesser before he addressed the entire bureau. Alford stressed the importance of Terrebonne’s tourism business, noting the money and tax revenue visitors bring to the parish. According to Alford, if Terrebonne had no visitors, each citizen of the parish would have to pay an additional $204 per year in taxes to maintain the government’s current services.

“[Tourism money] goes into our general funds and helps our parish president take care of those drainage issues. It helps school our children, it helps our medical facilities, it helps everything else that’s given to us as benefits in our community,” she said.

Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove said he hopes the in-progress Bayou Country Sports Park will be a new source of visitors via families in town for tournaments. The oil and gas downturn, he said, has only emphasized how critical tourism is to the parish.

“At times like this, more than ever, tourism is so important because it’s something we can bring into this parish. With the oilfield in decline the way it is, we need every dollar we can get in Terrebonne Parish,” Dove said.

Nungesser said fixing the state’s $600 million deficit for the next fiscal year could have nasty effects on his department. State officials originally proposed a 30 percent cut to his budget before reducing that to 15 percent, he said.

Though Nungesser is confident legislators will restore that missing 15 percent in a likely upcoming special session, the lieutenant governor’s office has compiled a list of historic sites and parks that would close with projected cuts. According to Nungesser’s figures, six historic state sites and five parks would close as a result of a 15 percent cut. None of the closures would be local to Terrebonne. Also, Alford said cuts to Nungesser’s office would not affect her own department’s funding.

Nungesser said his office has considered adding representatives from different parts of Louisiana to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans to convince visitors to explore the rest of the city. He is also trying to set up a direct flight from London to New Orleans to promote more international tourism, noting international visitors stay longer and spend more money than their American counterparts. However, to make those things happen, his office must have the resources.

“Look, the legislators care about their community. We just got to sell them and make them understand the performance and return on investment,” Nungesser said. “You don’t want to say it’s more important than TOPS, more important than health care or more important than education. But to do all those other things, we’ve got to have those tax dollars.” •