Tourism could be hit by I-5 delays

The fallen Skagit River bridge lies between Snohomish County and some of the area’s top tourism spenders, who drive south from Vancouver, B.C.

Just as the vacation season heats up, traffic is winding slowly along a detour in Mount Vernon, and delays could discourage visitors. This weekend will be telling.

“We definitely are concerned about the impact this will have in Snohomish County,” said Amy Spain, executive director of the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau.

When disaster has struck in other areas of the country, Spain said, tourism in those areas has been affected by public perception. If travelers hear of long delays, they get discouraged. But if visitors only have to drive an extra 30 minutes on a trip that typically takes three hours, they’re likely still to make the journey, Spain said.

Last year, visitors to Snohomish County spent $875.8 million, according to a March report by Dean Runyan and Associates. Restaurants were the biggest beneficiaries of those tourism dollars — to the tune of $244.2 million.

Travelers from Vancouver, B.C., make up Snohomish County’s third-largest market, Spain said. And they spend more than double that of people from, say, King County or Portland. That’s because most Vancouver travelers stay a night or two in area hotels and spend money at shopping centers like Seattle Premium Outlets at Tulalip.

Ken Kettler, president of the Tulalip Resort Casino, was keeping an eye on traffic Friday evening. At that point, he was hearing that drivers were having to spend an additional 40 minutes coming south. The resort was updating travel information on its website and social media channels.

“It’s going to take a little extra travel time,” he said.

About 20 percent of the Tulalip resort’s business comes from Vancouver tourists, Kettler said. Most of the casino’s visitors, though, are from the south — Marysville, Everett, North Seattle. Canadians “love to shop” and stay at the resort, he said. Kettler was optimistic about the Vancouver crowd.

“They’re explorers,” he said.

Tourism director Spain suggested that several Snohomish County businesses could benefit while the bridge is being repaired. Workers who will rebuild the bridge will need hotel rooms, food from local restaurants and fuel at area gas stations.

On Friday afternoon, at least, one Skagit County business along the alternate travel route already was seeing a boost.

Traffic along Best Road in front Rexville Grocery was busier than during the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, said Joyce Welch, one of the owners.

“It is like I-5 out here,” Welch said, noting she’d never seen more traffic in her 14 years at Rexville.

The store called in extra help to deal with the influx of customers. Typically open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Rexville Grocery could stay open longer to accommodate the extra people coming through.

Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454; mdunlop@heraldnet.com.

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