More than 15 years ago, top civic boosters described Philadelphia's travel and tourism attractions as "gold that we simply can't afford not to mine."
That's as true today as it was then, when the region launched a tourism marketing effort in 1996 that put millions of dollars to work to promote the region to visitors from both near and far.
Thanks to inventive ad campaigns like "Philly's More Fun When You Sleep Over," which was launched in the doldrums after 9/11, and the latest "With Love, Philadelphia XOXO" pitch, annual leisure visits have grown by 10 million, or nearly one-third.
Those visits translate, officials estimate, into a tourism and travel business generating $26 million per day, thousands of jobs, and $1.35 billion a year in taxes.
But nurturing a region's visitor industry takes a sustained effort. No matter how successful previous marketing campaigns were, tourists have to be reminded over and over that the Philadelphia region is a great place to visit. Failing that, travelers will be lured to other destinations.
That's why it's encouraging that state funding for tourism marketing may recover slightly after being slashed to the bone over the past two years. Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. officials anticipate their funding will rise to $600,000 in Gov. Corbett's next budget, up from just $128,000 this fiscal year.
That good news, however, must be tempered by the fact that tourism marketing funds here and across Pennsylvania remain millions short of earlier levels - about one-third less than what's needed to maintain tourism as an important economic engine.
While the state ranked sixth in tourism funding a few years ago, it has fallen to 44th place as Corbett trimmed budgets up and down state government to balance Harrisburg's books without new taxes.
Mayor Nutter also zeroed out city funds for several years when the recession hit, leaving hotel-tax revenues as the main source of funding for marketing.
Facing funding cuts, GPTMC chief Meryl Levitz shrank staffing by 20 percent, moved the agency to smaller quarters, and pursued savvy, cost-conscious marketing strategies that focus on social media to reach an increasingly mobile audience. Even so, the marketing pros showed they could still make a splash, as with last year's trek to New York to install an eye-catching ad inside Penn Station, seen by millions of Big Apple travelers.
With a track record of getting a big bang for every buck it spends, and innovative approaches like the new uwishunu.com online guide to the city, GPTMC has made a compelling case for more support from both the state and the city to rebuild the region's tourism marketing muscle.
There are only a few likely sources of funding. Chief among them is the 8.5 percent hotel tax, which generated $8.2 million this year for marketing. That levy hasn't been increased in nearly four years, and lags behind the double-digit taxes in some major cities. Then there are the city and state budgets, each of which should shoulder a larger share of the tourism marketing efforts.
Beyond sustaining a key sector of the local economy, it would be smart to do more to boost tourism marketing efforts that directly support multimillion-dollar public infrastructure investments - from the makeover of Independence Mall to new Parkway museums and the Avenue of the Arts entertainment district.