As potential tourist destinations go, it’s hard to top Washington’s menu of options. Spectacular mountain and water scenery, all the outdoor-recreation opportunities you could want, big-city amenities including the latest in foodie and beverage trends. And a volcano!
If only we could tell the world what we have here, so the world would come and spend money.
That’s been the ongoing lament of the state’s travel and tourism industry, given that Washington enters the summer tourism season without a state (or provincially) sponsored marketing and promotion program.
The state never had much of one to start with, compared with its neighbors, but in the midst of budget crunches, government got out of the business. But it didn’t shut off the pipeline completely. For a two-year period, the state provided bridge financing to a private group, the Washington Tourism Alliance. The idea was that the alliance could continue a marketing program — preparing an annual guide, maintaining a website and a call center, promoting Washington tourism to media and people in the travel industry — while devising a permanent financing plan, most likely an assessment on businesses, and get it approved by the Legislature.
That hasn’t happened. The alliance reports that the supplemental budget didn’t include hoped-for short-term financing, and bills to set up an industry-funded tourism marketing authority didn’t make much headway.
Whatever the factors, state support is, for the moment, done.
That doesn’t mean tourism promotion is done. The alliance gets support for its programs from members such as the Port of Seattle, the Spokane Public Facilities District, the Washington State Fair and Alaska Airlines, and regional and local tourism groups as well as individual companies and attractions to do their own marketing campaigns.
But the alliance, in a 2015 state Department of Commerce report, warned that “with the lack of funding, which had been anticipated from WTA’s proposed legislation and/or the appropriation of interim funding in the state budget, the WTA does not expect to operate the call center, provide postage for the visitor’s guide, participate in international tourism efforts or fund tourism research.”
Does that matter? Would throwing a lot of money into tourism marketing make much of a difference?
The industry finds itself in an interesting position of touting its growth and success while simultaneously complaining about the lack of marketing dollars. In an April news release, the alliance said its data show that overnight person-trips, direct visitor spending, tourism-industry employment and tax revenue in Washington in 2015 were all up from the prior year.
But the alliance said that growth was not consistent across the state (King County doing much better than the rest) and was slower than the growth rate for overall taxable sales. “WTA officials worry about loss of tourism market share in the absence of a legislatively approved, statewide industry funded long-term marketing program,” an alliance news release said.
Assessing whether that’s true collides with three issues for the tourism industry. First and most obvious is defining what exactly is tourism. Boeing knows how many planes it builds in a year. Weyerhaeuser has a pretty good idea of how many board feet of timber or lumber it produces. But does a Tacoma family having lunch on the Ruston Way waterfront count as tourism the way retirees from California visiting the Museum District do? Legislation creating a tourism authority would pin assessments on food, retail, transportation and attractions and entertainment businesses, whether or not they regard themselves as part of the tourism industrial complex.
Second, tourism is an incredibly variable and fickle industry. Some factors that cause that variability you can anticipate, such as gasoline prices or the economy. One-time events such as the U.S. Open can be one-time boons. But how do you anticipate that an author who’d never been there sets her wildly popular teen-vampire books in a remote logging town in Washington, touching off a tourism boomlet in Forks? Or that a Japanese ball player decides to try his luck in the American major leagues and finds out he’s pretty good at it, drawing fans from his home country to Seattle? Maybe someone else will get the next food craze — or the next volcano.
Third, what tourists want, and how they research, plan and book trips, has dramatically changed.
It’s a world of the Internet, with a billion brochures at your fingertips, with a near-infinite supply of travel guides and recommendations, and online booking services offered by the likes of Expedia as well as individual service providers such as hotels and airlines. And it’s a world of far more options and opportunities. Thirty years ago, could you have made a legitimate pitch for a tourist to visit Tacoma — not Mount Rainier, but the city itself? Now you can.
How state-level tourism promotion fits into that revised world is an issue the industry is still working out. Lots of tourists are going to come here even if there isn’t a single, central entity to entice them. The unanswered questions: How many more could you get, how much is that going to cost and is that payout worth it?
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at email@example.com.