Closure of state tourism office leaves Washington promotion in private hands

EVERETT — Until this year, Washington state ranked 49th in the nation for its annual investment in funding state tourism promotion.

Now it ranks 50th.

To help balance the state’s budget in the midst of a slow economic recovery and shrinking revenues, Gov. Chris Gregoire and state legislators decided to close the Washington Tourism Office at the end of this month, saving roughly $1.8 million annually.

People in the state’s tourism industry are puzzled why that amount would be cut, considering it helped to promote the state as a tourism destination that attracted more than $15 billion in 2010.

Now businesses affected by tourism are scrambling to create a private marketing group for the state, the new Washington Tourism Alliance:

State, county and city tourism offices and private businesses began uniting early this year when it became evident the state center would be closing.

“Now, we need members, we need support,” Snohomish County Tourism Bureau director Amy Spain told a group of more than 40 people Tuesday at an information luncheon at the downtown Holiday Inn. The Tourism Bureau is one of the alliance’s new associate members.

“With individual memberships as low as $25, there’s no real reason for anyone to not support this industry. It affects us all,” Spain said.

A panel discussion led by Sandy Ward, media director of the Future of Flight and Boeing Tour center in Everett, one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions, included comments by Jane Kilburn, Port of Seattle; Monique Valenzuela Trudnowski, Adriatic Grill; and Tammy Blough, chief executive of the Tacoma Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Ward brought the group up to date on the alliance’s initial meeting, a summit March 31 in Tacoma, where an interim board of directors was formed and memberships brought in an initial $300,000 to launch the group. The nonprofit organization was established by industry stakeholders “with the sole mission of sustaining Washington state destination tourism marketing,” according to the mission statement.

Now the group is engaged in creating a long-term strategy for funding, developing and marketing a new, industry-driven tourism program, Ward said. Roughly 144,000 jobs in the state rely on tourism, according to the alliance, making the issue of how to promote the state for tourism a major focus.

While other states spend more money each year to bring in visitors, Washington must find a way to compete for tourism attention and dollars, she said.

After the conference, Spain said the county Tourism Bureau continues to promote its website, create brochures and booklets for tourism and operate its four visitor centers because it’s supported by a share of hotel-motel taxes and other funding not tied to the state.

“Tourism is the fourth-largest industry in the state, behind things like aerospace,” she said. “The WTA is already growing, and we need to continue to attract attention and membership as it takes shape. We’re in the midst of creating an industry-based tourism program and we’re already planning well ahead to make it successful.”

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