Will state see recovery in tourism this year?

contributing writerFebruary 19, 2012 

Even as closing time approached at the Seattle Golf and Travel Show, attendees were still strolling the aisles, conversations punctuated by the thwack of club face meeting ball on simulated driving ranges and putting greens.

At least one booth staffer reported that show attendees seemed to be in an upbeat mood, willing to play more and spend more this year.

That’s good news for an important part of the state’s travel and tourism industry, and for the local segment of that sector, given the hopes attached to the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.

What that means for travel generally is far more uncertain.

But then, that would be perfectly in keeping with the prospects for an industry that, in a recession, is a discretionary expenditure that is the first, and easiest, to cut.

Are would-be tourists still sitting at home waiting for the economy, and their own finances, to improve? Or will they decide they’ve waited long enough, that it’s time to cure cabin fever of several years’ duration?

Will they be deterred by higher gas prices (“Do I hear $4.50 a gallon? How about $5?”)? Will that keep travelers at home, or will they decide to take money out of some other account to pay for more expensive gas and plane tickets?

The uncertainty is compounded in Washington by the demise last year of the state tourism office, that being one discretionary expenditure state government decided it could do without.

Tourism promotion is now in the hands of the industry itself. The Washington Tourism Alliance (formed a year ago), the Washington Lodging Association and SagaCity Media are partners in the publication of a state travel guide to be issued the first week of March.

Having one publication resolves the odd situation of having two travel guides (one done by the state, one by the industry), but beyond that the industry is still in the early stages of figuring out how and where to market itself, and how to pull together an industry populated by so many players representing so many diverse interests.

Last weekend’s golf and travel show is a perfect illustration of the marketing issues to be considered – heavy on golf (not surprising given the size of that market), but light on regional destinations, cruise lines, travel agencies, tour operators, hotels, wineries and other attractions that might be of interest to the non-golf-playing public.

Is there enough of an audience to justify a general travel show? There might be, to judge from the crowds at the old Seattle Travel Show.

Would it generate enough business to justify the expense and effort? Based on personal experience, the answer is yes – the literature and information gathered at those travel shows translated into trips made and dollars spent later in the year.

Starting with day trips right in our own backyard. The Tacoma Regional Convention and Visitor Bureau was one of the few general-travel attractions to display at the Seattle show (others included Bellingham and Spokane).

If there isn’t going to be a Seattle travel show, maybe there ought to be a Tacoma travel show, showcasing the travel industry and its attractions right here, much as the Let’s Play! Sports and Fitness Fest did for local recreational opportunities.

Even a modest one-day local event could pay big dividends for tourism here by telling people what they can do locally (a particularly attractive idea if we’re talking about gas north of $5 a gallon). If the rest of the Northwest, or even the globe, wants to join in, so much the better.

A lot of people are ready to get out of the house and go somewhere – and wouldn’t mind a few ideas on where to wind up when they do.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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