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Market Street re-route proposal runs head-on into SA Alamo mythology

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The Alamo, the Shrine of Texas Liberty, has long been surrounded by myth. Yet it has remained a regular destination for generations of Texans, drawing them and others from around the world to San Antonio. San Antonio tourism has also long been swathed in myth and misperception. Take the case of the annual visitor count at the Alamo itself.

These days the annual visitor count at the Alamo is usually reported as "more than 2.5 million." That sounds like a big number, and it isn't trivial by any means, but it is far smaller than the 10 million annual visitors regularly described by local officials in the 1980s. When the San Antonio Express-News reported on the visitor count at the Alamo in March 2002, it referred to a 1995 study by the Convention and Visitors Bureau that said the Alamo "drew an estimated 3.5 million visitors."

Those Alamo numbers reflect the mythology that has long surrounded the visitor business in San Antonio. We know our city's a hospitable place, and we all know we see lots of visitors. But how big, and how important in economic terms, is our visitor industry? That's a particularly important question, as we consider rerouting Market Street downtown to accommodate a convention center expansion, and the expense of tearing down and replacing a large part of the Henry B. Gonzalez Center.

According to the latest version of the "Center City Strategic Framework Plan" from HR&A Advisors, "Downtown anchors the $11 billion annual tourism industry. … A more vital downtown can increase the value of tourism to the City by producing more places to visit and a more vibrant quality to neighborhoods." That "$11 billion" annual tourism industry also sounds impressive. And the same number turns up in last November's Destination SA Update 2011 strategic plan for the city's visitor industry, from the Conventions, Sports & Leisure consulting firm. The CSL study says, "The most recent studies of visitor industry economic impact in San Antonio indicate that in 2008, the economic impact of San Antonio's hospitality industry was estimated at $11 billion, employing 106,000 people." CSL goes on to argue that a host of new initiatives, ranging from new gateways to the San Antonio River, to improvements to Alamo Plaza, to new downtown "urban rail projects," "can help to protect and enhance this level of impact."

There's that $11 billion figure from 2008, together with a total hospitality employment number of 106,000. Those figures actually come from a 2008 study of the economic impact of San Antonio's hospitality industry produced for the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the Tourism Council. The study, which uses employment data for the entire metropolitan San Antonio area, not just the city itself or Bexar County, did indeed put hospitality industry impact at $11 billion. And it counted exactly 106,311 jobs in the hospitality industry — the basis for the $11 billion estimate of economic impact. But a quick look shows that the overwhelming majority of those jobs, exactly 75,189, or 70.7 percent, were in "restaurants and catering."

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