In the Big Bend’s booming tourism industry, some raise concerns about taxes used to promote more tourism

The number of people flocking to Big Bend National Park has grown to record-high numbers, fueling a boom in the region’s broader tourism industry. Because of that, some are questioning the wisdom of special lodging-related taxes used to promote more tourism.

The entrance to the Terlingua Ghost Town. (Hannah Gentiles for Marfa Public Radio)

By Travis Bubenik

Off a rocky road in the borderlands tourist town of Terlingua earlier this year, Daryl Eby showed off one the many short-term rentals he manages in the area, an Airbnb dubbed the “Big Bend Stargazer.”

“This I would classify as glamping,” said Eby, one of the biggest lodging operators in the area. “Yeah, this is nice.”

The rental is a vintage but stylishly renovated Airstream trailer, perched on a hillside with sweeping views of the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert. From the deck outside the trailer, you can see the nearby national park and its Chisos Mountains. 

The number of short-term rentals here, like Eby’s “Stargazer,” have grown in recent years, and now fill the Terlingua landscape. It’s all part of a booming tourism industry in the Big Bend region. But with that growth have come increasing frustrations in recent months over a special type of lodging-related tax.

Hotel occupancy taxes, or “HOT” taxes as they’re often called, aren’t your average tax. 

In Texas, state law limits how these special taxes can be used. The money mostly has to go back into promoting tourism, though there is some wiggle room. The taxes can be used for arts programs and historical preservation, but they can’t pay for things like roads or public housing. And that has some in the Terlingua area and the broader Big Bend region wondering if these special taxes even make sense anymore in a place where tourism’s already at record-high levels.

“They’re basically just throwing away money now on extra advertising, much of which is probably not seeing any significant or necessary return on investment,” said Eby, who has become one of the loudest voices raising concerns about HOT taxes.

The desert landscape of Terlingua, Texas. (Hannah Gentiles for Marfa Public Radio)

Brewster County, where Terlingua is located, funnels HOT tax money into a local “tourism council” that runs the county’s tourism promotion efforts. This fiscal year, records show, the tax has already brought in more than one million dollars.

“It does beg the question, you know, when can we say that’s enough to spend?” said Sara Allen Colando, a county commissioner representing the Terlingua area.

“If you spend a million dollars advertising Brewster County, is that enough?” she asked. “Or do you have to spend $1.2 [million] next year, do you have to spend $1.4 [million] next year, can you just say like, okay, a million dollars a year is enough?”

Colando said she would like to see the county’s tourism marketing “plateau,” and then officials could find something else to do with the extra money.

Robert Alvarez, director of the local tourism council, is on board with that idea. 

He said the council is already planning to use some of the tax money for things that the law does allow, like new visitor centers with simple amenities like public restrooms for people going to and from a camping trip.

“My organization doesn’t have to keep bringing more and more people, we’re at a sustainable level right now,” he said.

Still, “sustainable” is a debatable term.

Teepees for rent in the Terlingua, Texas area. (Hannah Gentiles for Marfa Public Radio)

Skyrocketing tourist numbers here have come with the same kind of challenges that similar communities face, like a housing shortage as Airbnb numbers grow and strained water supplies as people build new properties.

The state’s hotel industry has largely opposed any broad expansion of HOT tax laws that could allow the money to be used for those kinds of infrastructure problems, though lawmakers have managed to pass some locally specific expansions in certain towns.

“The compromise has always been, that’s something the industry will tolerate, provided that the money is used to promote the area as a tourism destination,” said Justin Bragiel, an attorney with the trade group Texas Hotel and Lodging Association.

“I understand there are some communities that would say, ‘we don’t want any more visitors or tourists,’” he said. “But you know, that ship has sailed, so to speak, right?”

Daryl Eby said if lawmakers would allow some changes to HOT tax uses here, there are plenty of things the community could use the money for.

“Grants to help a restaurant owner open up, or to incentivize someone to open a new gas station, or to provide housing assistance for locals,” he said. “There’s a lot of need out here.”

Meanwhile, there has been a related problem lately of some Big Bend rental owners not paying HOT taxes. Officials are gearing up to go after those unpaid taxes, so it’s likely this rural area will have even more tourism-driven cash on hand in the future. 

But at least for now, it’s also likely that money won’t be used for some of the region’s most pressing problems.

About Travis Bubenik

All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter
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