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Our View: Avoid the spin with state's tourism stats

There is no doubt that tourism- and visitor-related spending in South Dakota has flatlined. Although the state Office of Tourism reported last month that visitor spending grew by a few percentage points in 2008, it did not take into account infla...

There is no doubt that tourism- and visitor-related spending in South Dakota has flatlined. Although the state Office of Tourism reported last month that visitor spending grew by a few percentage points in 2008, it did not take into account inflation and a decline in sales-tax collections from vacation travelers.

What is in doubt is the state's role in delivering such news.

Should state tourism officials spin the statistics to put them into a positive light? Or should the true trends be revealed?

We feel the latter is the better course, and we aren't alone. Scott Heidepriem, minority leader in the state Senate, last week was vocal in his displeasure with the Office of Tourism, noting that "they're misleading the public and they're doing it deliberately."

Here are the facts: The Office of Tourism issued a press release to announce that visitor spending in the state had grown by 2.8 percent to a record $967 million. The department sent out the glowing press release, but didn't include the study that was used to determine the growth.

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That study, department officials said, would be available the following day. It was, and anyone who read the study closely could see that visitor spending in South Dakota actually fell 2.5 percent. The figure can be calculated by subtracting a measure of inflation from the 2.8 percent "nominal" growth rate.

The Office of Tourism release also omitted a $500,000 decline in state vacation-related sales taxes and an estimated loss of 901 tourism-related jobs.

A spokeswoman from the Office of Tourism said the information was omitted to keep the press release consistent with past releases, and also to adhere to standard reporting methods. If asked, she said, the Office of Tourism is happy to provide the whole story.

But, apparently, only if asked. Many media outlets simply reported the first press release and failed to follow up with the actual study. The story broke after The Daily Republic checked the study.

We do not accuse the Office of Tourism of evil intentions, but we do consider this a shady practice. Heidepriem especially does, saying the department is spreading "misinformation."

We hope the Office of Tourism considers this next year when it issues its annual report. The department is all about public relations, as it should be, but it has taken a substantial PR hit due to its reporting practices.

That's the last thing the Office of Tourism needs as this state hopes to keep tourism active and healthy in these difficult economic times.

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