Louisiana attracted more than 26 million visitors in 2012, breaking a previous tourism record set in 2003, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne announced Tuesday.

The numbers, part of an annual tourism study by the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center, indicate that the state’s tourism sector is improving, Dardenne said.

“One of things that is really going well for Louisiana is our ability to attract people from outside the state,” he said. “People are fascinated by Louisiana, our culture, our unique nature of who we are as a people. We’re seeing that if we invest in tourism, we’re going to get great dividends on the back end.”

According to the study, 26.6 million people visited Louisiana in 2012, spending $10.7 billion compared with the 25.5 million people who visited in 2011 and spent $10 billion. In 2003, the first year of the study, 26.2 million visitors came to Louisiana and spent $9.4 billion.

The uptick in visitors last year resulted in the creation of 8,000 new tourism jobs and generated $665 million in state tax revenue, Dardenne said.

According to the report, the New Orleans area saw 9 million visitors last year who spent $6.2 billion, the highest spending level since 2003.

Dardenne said the increase in visitors is indicative of the department’s team approach to promoting the state using the theme “Louisiana: Pick Your Passion.” The state has partnered with local tourism boards and with the Louisiana Travel and Promotion Association.

“Everybody has embraced that concept and it has helped us focus our messaging collectively,” he said.

To the applause from the tourism-heavy crowd, Dardenne said the department could do even more if all sales tax dollars earmarked for tourism made it to its budget. While the sales tax slice dedicated for tourism generated $23 million last year, more than half of that money was redirected for other purposes, he said.

“Tourism is a big business for Louisiana,” Dardenne said. “It’s undervalued and underappreciated by many people, but it translates to income for the state and jobs for our people.”