EVERETT — Paine Field was Snohomish County’s most popular tourist destination — was.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
The tour of The Boeing Co.’s enormous jet assembly plant, which embarks from the Boeing Future of Flight, was suspended two years ago. The in-person tour draws some 300,000 visitors each year. It hasn’t resumed.
Another crowd-pleaser, the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum, has been shuttered for more than two years. The foundation that operates the museum closed it in May 2020, citing pandemic concerns. The museum was recently acquired by Walmart heir Steuart Walton. Walton said Flying Heritage would reopen at its current location within the year but no date was set.
Prior to the pandemic, the “county’s biggest tourist location was Paine Field and the people coming from all over the world to view the aircraft there,” County Executive Dave Somers recently told an online tourist roundtable.
With fewer attractions at the Snohomish County-owned airport, county officials hope to replace the visitors and money the airport attractions brought in.
The county’s tourism division, which is part of the executive’s office, is stepping up its promotion of the region’s summer festivals and events, outdoor recreation and dining options.
Make no mistake, tourism is one of the county’s top economic economic drivers, coming in at No. 2 or 3, depending on the study.
In 2019, visitors to Snohomish County spent over $1.2 billion here, making the county one of the top three tourism markets in Washington.
Visitor tallies and dollar figures crashed statewide during the pandemic. Last year, the numbers began to trend upwards.
Washington welcomed more than 95 million visitors last year, David Blanford, executive director state of Washington Tourism Alliance told roundtable participants.
“That sounds good, but it is really only 87% of 2019 numbers. That shows we still have a ways to go,” Blanford said.
“Visitor spending totaled $17.7 billion in 2021 — which is great — but that’s only 81% of 2019,” Blanford said.
The county’s 2021 totals also trail.
Lodging revenues were down 12% last year.
The county’s retail sector, which includes small, independent shops and Seattle Retail Outlets in Tulalip, a draw for international tourists, was down 12%.
Recreation, another backbone of the region’s tourist industry is also down 12%, said Christian Folk, senior digital strategist at DVA Advertising and Public Relations. DVA, based in Bend, Oregon company, provides tourism marketing services to the county.
One reason visitor numbers are down here and across the state is that business travel and convention bookings are still lagging. Recovery is not expected to occur until 2024 or 2025, industry experts say.
Still, there is some good news, Molly Spector, the county’s tourism regional projects coordinator told roundtable participants.
Visitors to Snohomish County are spending more time here.
In the first three months of this year, more than half all trips involved stays of more than five days, compared to 29% during the same period a year ago, Spector said.
Longer stays typically translate into more money spent on food, lodging and entertainment.
According to Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, for every $1 a visitor spends for a place to stay, another $2 is spent in the community.
“Every time we sell a room, we’re doubling the other amounts that we’re bringing into our community,” Anton told an online gathering held by Economic Alliance Snohomish County. Hotels and motel are typically owned by local franchise owners who pay to be branded under the name of a national or regional chain, he said.
The Evergreen State Fair in Monroe, which was cancelled in 2020, drew more than 800,000 visitors when it resumed last year.
This year, many local festivals and events have returned or expanded.
The list includes the Arlington SkyFest (formerly Arlington Fly-In), the Summer Meltdown near Monroe and Salty Sea Days in Everett. Everett was the host for a new event this year Everett 3on3. A Boeing sponsored event, the basketball tournament was held last month in the city’s downtown.
Everett’s waterfront is one of the county’s top 10 visitor destinations, port officials said.
The waterfront could draw even more visitors next year when restaurant row at Waterfront Place debuts. More than a half-dozen restaurants, bakeries, breweries, wineries and coffee cafes are set to open at the port next year.
“As more amenities and attractions come online at Waterfront Place, particularly dining options, we do expect to draw more visitors, likely doubling site visits,” said Lisa Lefeber, port CEO said.
While some attractions at the Snohomish County-owned airport are still closed, the volume of flight traffic to Paine Field from Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Phoenix — is climbing, county tourism coordinator, Spector said.
“That’s great news because it means that people are flying directly into Snohomish County rather than King County,” Spector said. “Hopefully, they’re staying in the county.”
At the Boeing Future of Flight, the on-site Everett factory tour has been replaced by a 45-minute documentary narrated by staff.
For a $20 “Backstage Pass,” visitors can view the film and receive a day pass for the facility. A visit that doesn’t include the film is $12.
Since the premier of the Backstage Pass option in March monthly attendance at the Future of Flight has doubled compared to a year ago, Norman Mah a Boeing spokesman wrote in an email to The Daily Herald.
On a recent morning, about 100 people filed into the theater at Boeing Future of Flight to view the documentary. It was an international audience that hailed from Germany, Australia, Belgium, United Kingdom, India, China and South Africa.
Officially, Boeing does not expect the-person factory tour to resume this year. “We will continue to look ahead about restarting it,” Boeing spokesman Mah wrote.
Unofficially, a staff member at the Future of Flight recently told theater-goers, “For those of you who want to know when the factory tour returns — it’s when, not if,” the person said. “Probably next year.”