(Editor’s note: This is the first of a five-part series, which runs monthly, written by Discover Lehigh Valley president Mike Stershic, on the economic importance of tourism in the Lehigh Valley.)
The recent naming of Bethlehem to Reader’s Digest’s list of 15 Most Underrated American Cities was a surprise.
By what measure?
We are fortunate in the Lehigh Valley to have national and international quality attractions.
We are home to a National Landmark District, Historic Moravian Bethlehem, that’s on the short list to be nominated to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage List.
The Lehigh Valley is home to an internationally known guitar maker, world class velodrome and an amazing performing arts venue redeveloped on a brownfield.
Upon more reflection, though, it’s understandable why the region may be underrated.
Our own residents don’t think of the Lehigh Valley as a visitor destination.
They are surprised to hear that we welcome more than 15 million visitors annually and that they spend more than $2.2 billion in the region.
They are amazed that more than 24,750 people are involved in the visitor economy, just in our two counties of Northampton and Lehigh alone.
LOVE THEIR VISIT
It’s incredible to think about this outside flow of traveler traffic when it often seems challenging to get local residents to travel from Allentown to Easton or vice versa. (No, you don’t need a passport!).
Visitors love their experiences here. Whether it’s a festival such as Musikfest, Das Awkscht Fescht, Blues, Brews and Barbecue, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival or Bacon Fest, they come, enjoy and go home impressed.
Whether it’s a venue such as the State Theatre, Miller Symphony Hall, Sands Bethlehem Event Center or the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, they experience the quality of the performances that we see.
Our visitors tell us that they are having a great time. The most recent Discover Lehigh Valley research found that 57 percent of respondents rated their visit a nine out of 10 or higher, compared with 47 percent nationally.
And if returning is an indicator of quality, 59 percent of our visitors have been here four or more times in the past two years.
Those happy customers tell their friends and relatives about the time they spent here, and that encourages more people to visit.
RISING STATURE IN PA
Lehigh Valley boasts one of the fastest-growing tourism economies in Pennsylvania. The past three years, we have been at the top or second in percentage growth in the state.
And that’s not new. Since the founding of Discover Lehigh Valley in 1984, we have grown from being 2.46 percent of all visitor spending in Pennsylvania to 5.2 percent of visitor spending today.
That is quite a testament to our region.
The Lehigh Valley tourism industry annually generates about $480 million in federal, state and local taxes.
It imports dollars to the region from other parts of the country and the world.
On any given night, on average, more than 4,200 people from elsewhere are staying in our hotels, and that assumes only one guest per room.
With so many families traveling here, that number is conservatively low.
INVITE YOUR FRIENDS
So, in a way Bethlehem and the rest of Lehigh Valley are, indeed, underrated.
Some people may not think that what we have can be any good, just because it is here and not in New York or Philadelphia. (Some of my relatives number among them.)
It’s not until they make the trip and experience Lehigh Valley for themselves that they realize just how strong a destination we are.
So, invite your friends and relatives for a visit, show them around and maybe you will learn something about our home, as well.
Since 2004, Mike Stershic has been president of Discover Lehigh Valley, the tourism promotion agency for Lehigh and Northampton counties. He will retire at the end of the year. He has more than 40 years of experience in the for-profit, nonprofit and government sectors and has served on the boards of more than 20 organizations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 610-882-9200.