Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Read Your Next Hotel Bill Carefully (and Thank Me Later)

In 2022, hotel fees in certain major American cities are higher than a hippie on Mt. Everest.

Frustrated travelers blame (supposedly) greedy motel and hotel owners.

But think twice.

Hotel and motel owners say they are convenient scapegoats. The real villains, they said, are local city council members and county commissioners who impose costly hotel taxes. 

This week I researched hotels in one well-known American city, whose mayor and city council recently jacked up hotel taxes. A higher-end hotel charges $429 a night for two nights. Customers must also pay an additional $143 in government taxes and fees, for a total of $1,051. For a two-night stay at a lower-end motel in the same city, a traveler would pay $107 a night plus a $40 hotel tax.  

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Hotel taxes are always a given, but why are local city council members and county commissioners raising them even higher? The simple answer is they want more money for economic development projects. Some hotel owners and taxpayer rights’ activists instead label those projects as pork-barrel.

In Memphis, hotel taxes subsidized a private company, Bass Pro Shops, to operate a megastore/resort. In Wilson County, Tennessee, county commissioners wanted to raise the hotel tax to pay for a new Ag Expo Center. In Columbia, Tennessee city council members tried to impose a 20 percent hotel tax to boost tourism.

One hotel owner at the time described this as “an easy tax.”

“There isn’t a widespread body of resistance because the people who pay this tax pay it one time. The motel industry pays it every night. The pressure isn’t on from the public to resist it,” the hotel owner told me many years ago.

“What the public will do is simply make other plans, just like any other expense. There won’t be any great opposition, other than the motel owners, as I see it. Basically, saying if a hotel tax is too expensive then consumers have the option to drive to the next county over, where the hotel tax is possibly lower.”

As a reporter, I have asked several county commissioners and city council members why they felt comfortable raising hotel taxes. 

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Some told me their voters don’t care. After all, county commissioners didn’t penalize them. They only punished out-of-town tourists. Tea Party members told me, however, that higher-than-average hotel taxes pose problems at other local businesses where those same tourists have less spending money. 

Tea Party activists and other taxpayer-rights’ groups also said lobbyists from local tourism industries have a firm grip on local politicians, who, in turn, spoil them with more and more taxpayer money.

For my upcoming holiday travels, I will bypass the cities with high hotel taxes and will instead lodge in adjacent counties with far more reasonable tax rates. No self-serving politician will use my hard-earned money to buy votes. And, knowing that, I can get a good night’s rest.

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