Washington State Legislature & Governor Fund Tourism Efforts

With the Governor signing the state budget yesterday, $1 million in short-term bridge funds will be allocated to the Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA) to continue its critical work to maintain and grow Washington State tourism.

The budget allocation underwrites the basics of a targeted marketing program in 2014 and 2015.  Funds are specifically allocated for the state’s destination website for travelers; postage for mailing the Washington State Visitors’ Guide; operation of a tourism call center; tourism research; and international marketing. The Department of Commerce is directed to contract with WTA to provide these services to expand and promote the tourism industry for the state.  Terms of the contract will include a one-for-one matching requirement in either cash or in-kind services.

“This is an important first step in WTA efforts to build a long-term, fully funded tourism marketing program,” said Louise Stanton-Masten, WTA Executive Director. “However, it is only a fraction of what Washington State needs to effectively compete with other states. ”

“Tourism is crucial to our state’s economy,” said John Cooper, CEO of the Yakima Valley Visitors & Convention Bureau and a WTA Board member. “Without a strong state tourism effort visitors will go elsewhere and Washington could lose revenues and jobs. “

As Washington is the only state in the nation without a state supported tourism marketing program, the WTA has lobbied for short-term bridge funding from the state, while also working to establish a long-term, sustainable funding model designed to create an industry-funded organization. The two-pronged strategy involves finalizing a plan that will set up a mechanism to collect funds from various tourism-related business sectors to promote the state as a tourism destination.

In February, Governor Inslee released his Working Washington Agenda which references the importance of re-engaging tourism – the state’s fourth largest export industry according to Gross Domestic Product – following the closure of the state tourism office nearly two years ago.

Figures released in March by WTA indicate that tourism in Washington State improved slightly in 2012 thanks to the national economic recovery, however, visitation to Washington State lagged behind the U.S., spurring concern about the state’s tourism market share.  Competing western state tourism budgets range from $10 million to $60 million. Comparatively, WTA began work with a budget of some $300,000 when the state tourism office closed and has worked to sustain it by raising incremental funds through membership and corporate sponsorships.

Tourism is the fourth largest industry in the state with visitor spending of $16.9 billion, $1.1 billion in state and local tax revenue and more than 155,000 tourism jobs with earnings of $4.7 billion. In Yakima County visitors spend $354 million annually, support 3,580 jobs and generate $24 million in state and local taxes.

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About the Washington Tourism Alliance: The Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA) is a 501[c]6 organization established by industry stakeholders with the sole mission of sustaining Washington State destination tourism marketing. WTA procures and administers funds for state destination tourism marketing activities and creates and implements a strategic statewide destination marketing plan. www.watourismalliance.com

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Visitor Spending Slows In Washington State

Montana billboard outside the Pike Street Market in Seattle

Montana billboard outside the Pike Street Market in Seattle

Yesterday I attended the Third Annual Tourism Summit hosted by the Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA), where more than 200 tourism professionals from around the state convened in Olympia. I was encouraged with the level of support from Governor Inslee for sustaining basic tourism efforts through ‘bridge funding’. I am worried though with the sluggish growth of tourism in Washington State in 2012.

Figures released at the summit by WTA indicate that visitor spending in Washington improved just 2.1% in 2012, yet as a whole, tourism in the U.S. grew by 5.2%.  That means we lost market share. The state saw some 36.4 million total overnight person trips in 2012, and those visitors spent $16.9 billion, up 4.4%. Travel and tourism supported more than 153,300 jobs in 2012, up 2.7%, and generated a payroll of $4.7 billion.  While encouraging, I wonder how much more new spending, jobs and taxes would have been created if we had seen the level of growth the rest of the country did?

Why is visitor spending leveling off and likely to decline in the future? I think it’s largely because we have no state tourism program. As I have discussed before, the Washington State Tourism Office was closed in July 2011. Our main competitors have increased their marketing efforts. Idaho tourism has a budget of $7 million, Oregon has $12 million, British Columbia is at $48 million and California spends $61 million to attract visitors. They’re out there luring visitors as the WTA limps along with the meager resources it is able to raise.

The ‘bridge funding’ I mentioned is an industry request that is part of the Governor’s economic recovery plan. It calls for $1.77 million for the next two years (about $887,000 per year). Compared to the other states it’s spare change, but at least it will keep basic services going until long-term funding is secured. These dollars would be for website development and maintenance, postage to mail the industry funded visitors guide, operation of a call center, research and some international marketing.

If we want to improve our economy, create jobs and generate new taxes to support our public services we must revive statewide tourism marketing efforts. Otherwise we will lose ground.

John Cooper

Washington State Deserves a Tourism Program

When it comes to marketing a state for tourists, like sports you’re either in the game or you’re not. Washington State is not only out of the game, we’re nowhere near the parking lot.

In July 2011 the state tourism office was shut down due to budget constraints. Meanwhile, our surrounding states (and main competitors) expanded their tourism marketing. California and British Columbia each now have budgets exceeding $50 million. Oregon spends more than $12 million to lure visitors. Idaho is around $9 million. Any of the 50 states in the USA spend more than Washington to attract visitors.

Why do states invest in tourism promotion? Because it makes good business sense. Michigan recently invested $30 million in their tourism efforts and created 10,000 new jobs and $43.5 million in tax revenues. Conversely in 1993 Colorado eliminated its tourism office. Research showed that Colorado’s domestic visitor market plunged 30% within two years, representing a loss of over $1.4 billion in tourism revenue annually. Recognizing they were ‘out of the game’ and it was affecting their economy, the state starting funding a state tourism program some seven years later. But we can’t afford to wait seven years.

Tourism means jobs, new tax revenues and affects all regions of our state. Tourism is the fourth largest industry in Washington with nearly 150,000 jobs. Visitors spent $16.4 billion in 2011, generating more than $1.8 billion in state and local taxes. Yakima County is ranked 8th of the 39 counties in visitor spending with $350 million spent annually by visitors supporting more than 3,500 local jobs. Visitors also reduce your tax load. According to research conducted by Dean Runyan Associates of Portland, Washington families pay $400 less in taxes because of revenues generated by out-of-state visitors.

As the state tourism office closed the tourism industry formed the Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA) to move tourism forward for Washington. A primary focus of the organization has been to educate legislators, policy makers and business leaders of the importance of tourism for our economy, jobs and quality of life. We’ve been looking at the ways other states fund their tourism efforts. A favored model being considered involves having tourism industry sectors pay assessments that are pooled together to market the state. That’s how they do it in California and their program has been very successful. Getting industry support takes time (California took five years to pass their funding model).  In the meantime, WTA is asking for $1.9 million in ‘bridge’ funding from the legislature until a more stable funding source is developed.  This would cover website costs, postage to mail an industry funded visitor guide, a toll-free call center, research and some international marketing. Considering the average state tourism budget exceeds $14 million, that’s small change, but it’s a start in the right direction.

I am encouraged that Governor Inslee supports these efforts in his Working Washington Agenda and hope the legislature will also back this initiative to build tourism.

If Washington wants to be in the tourism game, we need to be all in and support an industry developed and industry driven tourism marketing program. Otherwise we will strike out.

John Cooper is the President and CEO of the Yakima Valley Visitors & Convention Bureau and serves on the board of the Washington Tourism Alliance representing Central Washington.

This was a guest editorial in the February 17th 2013 issue of the Yakima Herald Republic daily newspaper.