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Washington tourism: How much are we willing to pay to promote our mountain?

The state’s “official” travel guide is out, and it’s loaded with beautiful scenes of Washington. And why not? This state always did take a good picture. Given the wealth of material to work with, you’d have to go well out of your way — to another state, perhaps — to get an unflattering view.

Looking at all those pretty scenes may come for free (there’s no “deposit quarter here” coin-activated screen obscuring Mount Rainier, at least not yet), but those pretty pictures, on paper or a computer screen, in a travel guide, advertisement or website, have a cost.

The matter of who pays that cost is the subject of an ongoing tussle in the current legislative session.

The use of quotation marks around the word “official” is deliberate. If by “official” guide you mean a publication put out by a state-government tourism department, there isn’t one, because there’s no such department, Washington having line-itemed tourism marketing and promotion out of the budget in 2011. You could, if so inclined, put out your own state travel guide, and it’s not as though there aren’t books and guides put out by publishers and organizations like AAA.

But the industry, which long complained about how much the state spent, back when it spent anything at all, stepped in with formation of the Washington Tourism Alliance. The organization (backed with industry contributions and some bridge financing from the state) has taken over sponsorship of the travel guide and some tourism marketing, while it works out a permanent financing plan.

The temporary support has come from such major industry players as the Port of Seattle, Holland America, Alaska Airlines, the Seattle convention center and casinos.

The permanent support will come from, well, everybody.

Or darn near everybody. Here is the proposed funding scheme as detailed in the bill report for Senate Bill 5916, one of two tourism marketing acts under consideration (the House version is HB 1938):

“Revenues are generated from fees assessed upon identified businesses within certain tourism-related sectors. Fees on the lodging sector are separately levied on each business through a charge of $0.15 on each occupied room per night. The fee amount for all other businesses is set on a scale established for each industry, based on a business’s annual adjusted gross revenue.”

Food-service businesses would be assessed $25 to $3,500 each; attractions and entertainment will pay $100 to $2,500 per business; retailers will fork over $100 to $2,500 per business; and transportation businesses are to pay $125 to $2,500. The House version caps the revenue on which fees are assessed at $5 million a year, $10 million for food-service businesses.

The state gets 2 percent of the take for administering collections, with the rest going to a statewide tourism marketing program. A legislative budget analysis says the fees could generate nearly $7.4 million by fiscal year 2021.

It’s taken this long to get to this point because of the details to be worked out. What, for example, is included in retail? The lists of what’s in and out are voluminous and not exactly intuitive. Stores selling “a general line of groceries in combination with general lines of merchandise, including warehouse clubs and supercenters” are included, according to one version; grocery stores and specialty-food retailers aren’t.

That’s hardly the only source of contentiousness. Beyond that are questions about how the money will be spent geographically and whether businesses that don’t want to participate in such marketing programs or don’t believe they’ll benefit should be forced to do so.

That was in fact an objection raised by a senator from Chelan County, according to a report in the tourism alliance’s newsletter. The trade group says it understands the concerns. “Many WTA members were well aware of the shortcomings of the previous state program and, with industry leadership, do not intend to repeat those mistakes,” the newsletter reported.

Beyond even those issues is the overarching question of tourism marketing: Is it necessary?

Those at the core of the industry insist it is. Others on the periphery, including those who don’t see themselves as part of the industry but will still be paying, are skeptical.

It will be tough to tell the effect even if the Legislature does enact a marketing financing program. Formal tourism promotion efforts can put the state on the mental list of possible destinations for travelers (including those in Washington who are staycationing) and provide specifics for those inclined to come here.

But travel and tourism depend on so many factors — the economy here and elsewhere, gas prices, currency exchange rates, airfares, weather, major events (such as the U.S. Open), news events, word-of-mouth from friends, neighbors and co-workers. If a mountain looms over the horizon, will people still look at it if there’s no one to officially tell them to? And how much do you feel like paying to tell people to go gaze at it?

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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