Business Columns & Blogs

Can’t have tourism without promotion and money to pay for it

Tourism, we’re told, is a vitally important and growing component of the local, regional and state economies, importing millions of dollars to support thousands of jobs and hundreds of businesses. So how’s tourism doing anyway?

Hard to tell, because it’s hard to know other than anecdotally, in piecemeal fashion and through marginal changes what’s going on in tourism. A major source of the problem is defining just what constitutes tourism. Those would-be diners crowding the front lobby of a popular eatery on a Saturday night – how many of those count as tourists, and how many are locals just enjoying an evening out, and is there a distinction when it comes to defining tourism?

Those passengers deplaning at Sea-Tac – how many of those are tourists coming here to sample our many attractions and delights, as opposed to locals returning from being tourists somewhere else, or people on business trips? Does a shopper count as a tourist if she’s a Canadian down for the day at an outlet mall in Washington but not if he’s a local resident buying a sweater at that same mall?

But it must be important, even if we can’t quantify just how much. All those visitors spending all that money must count for something, paying for facilities and services that we locals get to enjoy along with them.

The challenges of defining what is tourism, which businesses are in the tourism industry and who is a tourist are not abstract and esoteric. They translate into real dollars and cents, and real fights over who is going to pay them, when it comes to the ever popular subject of tourism promotion.

A quick recap: Like most states, Washington for years had as an official function of state government the marketing of this place as a tourist destination. For years the industry complained that what the state spent paled in comparison to the amounts shelled out for marketing by its neighbors like British Columbia and Oregon.

State government, strapped for cash during the recession, came up with a solution to the complaints — it closed up the state tourism promotion office, cut its allocation to tourism marketing and told the industry to figure something out.

Which is what a trade association known as the Washington Tourism Alliance has been doing. It has patched together a tourism promotion program, including a state travel guide, supported by major private-sector donors (the state has thrown in a little money for items such as maintaining the official website) while it figures out a long-term solution.

What it’s leaning toward is an assessment on businesses in the travel business, not unlike what California has already and similar to crop-specific commodity marketing and promotion programs in agriculture.

That sounds rational enough, except that the “assessment” would not be voluntary; otherwise the alliance or whoever is running tourism marketing could operate on donations and member dues. And in order to collect the money, the industry needs legislative authority.

Last week the alliance held a Tourism Day in Olympia to promote two pieces of legislation, House Bill 2229 and Senate Bill 6195, the first steps in creating the assessment-collecting mechanism.

According to the text of the bills, the alliance has set $7.5 million a year as a “reasonable amount” for a tourism promotion program. That amount will be collected from five business sectors: lodging ($2.4 million of the total), food service ($2.1 million), attractions and entertainment ($975,000), retail ($1,425,000) and transportation ($600,000). Other sectors, the legislation adds, may be tapped later.

What the legislation doesn’t say is how the money is to be collected, and who specifically is in or out. By Dec. 1 the alliance is to send a report to legislative committees “proposing the manner in which the amounts allocated to each sector will be collected.”

That’s when the real fun will start. Some businesses will decide they’re not really in the tourist trade and have no obligation or desire to pay. Some will decide, for reasons of size or geography, that tourism promotion isn’t going to be of benefit to them. Some will prefer to handle tourism promotion themselves, because they won’t have to share the attention with someone else or because they don’t like the manner in which the campaigns are run (yes, we promised to lay off the pummeling of the Say WA and Metronatural campaigns, but darn it, it’s just too inviting).

The alliance will need to tread carefully to avoid offending some segment of payees into objecting. That may be asking too much, given the number and diversity of those supposedly crowding under the tourism umbrella. Agricultural commodity marketing programs, which in theory have much more cohesive membership, have been legally challenged by those who didn’t like the involuntary assessments or how they were spent.

The introductory section of the bills says growth in the state tourism sector has been below the national average, which it attributes to the lack of a state marketing office. Perhaps, although tourism flows can be affected by everything from an Interstate 5 bridge falling into a river to the popularity of books about mopey teenage vampires to no more Ichiro.

That’s what makes evaluating the economic payback of a tourism promotion program a tough proposition on an industrywide scale. But if the proposed plan becomes law, businesses around this state will get, in stark real-dollar terms, what those programs will cost them, and the opportunity to decide whether that amount is worth it.

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