Baltimore County — with 200 miles of waterfront, half a dozen wineries and acres of horse country — spends $125,000 each year on its tourism promotion office.
But an infusion of money approved by the County Council will give the Office of Tourism and Promotion more than six times that amount next year.
Council members have approved legislation requiring that 8 percent of the hotel tax collected by the county be sent to the tourism office.
The county takes in nearly $10 million annually in hotel taxes, so the bill approved last week would reserve about $800,000 to promote tourism. The legislation takes effect July 1.
Baltimore and Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties already dedicate portions of their hotel taxes to promoting tourism. Baltimore County Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond said it made sense to follow their lead.
The Reisterstown Democrat introduced the legislation and lined up Democratic and Republican co-sponsors. The measure passed unanimously.
Almond said the county's tourism spots — from the waterfront to main streets to rapidly urbanizing Towson — are "underutilized." She said they will benefit from an infusion of marketing dollars.
"By allocating money to tourism, we are generating new revenue for the county without placing additional burden on our residents," she said.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz was not keen on mandating how part of the hotel tax should be used, a spokesman said. But he did not oppose the bill because he supports tourism.
"We would prefer to not get into the habit of cordoning off funds from the general fund for specific purposes because that can tie your hands in the future," spokesman Don Mohler said.
Mohler said the county spends far more than $125,000 on tourism. Some spending, such as grants to museums and cultural institutions, occurs elsewhere in the budget.
He would not estimate how much the county spends to promote tourism, but said it gets "significant budgetary support."
Baltimore County Restaurant Week founder Brian Boston, a member of the county's tourism advisory council, said the move is "way overdue."
"There's a lot going on in Baltimore County, but we're the only county that doesn't have any money in tourism and promotion to let people know what we have to offer," said Boston, chef and proprietor of the Milton Inn in Sparks.
Boston said the new money could be spent to print glossy, magazine-style guides that could be placed in county hotels for visitors to browse for restaurants and activities.
Tourists spent $16.8 billion in Maryland last year. Tourism is the state's 10th-largest private sector employer, according to state officials.
Spending more money on tourism will help make Baltimore County more competitive with surrounding counties in attracting tourists, Almond said.
"I look forward to seeing all we can do as this moves forward," she said.
Currently, all of the local hotel tax — which is 8 percent of the room rate — goes to the county's general fund. The hotel tax rate is not affected by the bill.
In the current budget year, the county dedicated $125,000 to the Office of Tourism and Promotion, down from $218,000 the year before. The county also receives grants from the state — including $85,000 last year — to promote tourism.
Other jurisdictions have dedicated part of their hotel taxes to tourism promotion for years.
Seventeen percent of the hotel tax in Anne Arundel County goes to the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau. Three percent goes to the Arts Council of Anne Arundel County.
The visitors bureau runs print, broadcast and online ads promoting the region in general, specific events — such as the Military Bowl football game Tuesday and the Annapolis Film Festival in the spring — and attractions including the Naval Academy.
It also produces a Visit Annapolis website and arranges tours for out-of-town media working on travel stories.
Baltimore's 9.5 percent hotel tax provides the bulk of the $16 million annual budget for Visit Baltimore, the city's nonprofit convention and tourism organization.
Hal Ashman, the owner of Ultimate Watersports in Eastern Baltimore County, chairs the county's tourism advisory council.
"Baltimore County is unique in the fact it is one of the largest counties in the state of Maryland but has not had real tourism funding," he said.
Ashman was among those who pushed for dedicated tourism funding. The county has a tourism website but not much more, he said.
Once the money starts coming in, Ashman said, the county should draw up a detailed tourism promotion plan. He said the county can appeal to regional and out-of-state tourists, as well as to local people who might not know about all the county has to offer.
"I think we're going to surprise a lot of people — locals and tourists — with how much you can experience in two days," Ashman said.
The increased funding can be used to help visitors "connect the dots" between attractions, restaurants and lodging, he said.
Ashman offers kayaking, windsurfing, sailing and paddle-boarding lessons at Gunpowder Falls State Park. He said his business is working on an "air-land-sea" cross-promotion with iFly Indoor Skydiving and Autobahn Indoor Speedway. But businesses with less marketing knowledge might struggle with such partnerships, he said, and the tourism office can help.
Ashman said the county now has an opportunity to boost tourism, promoting more spending and increasing the flow of tax dollars to the government.
"There's been a vacuum in Baltimore County," he said. "We're about to change that."