As a call to line up for the Boeing Assembly plant is made, a tourist runs past a display of Boeing airplanes at the Future of Flight Museum on Dec. 8 in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Tourists love Snohomish County rivers, woods, whales, planes

EVERETT — Record-high crowds of tourists flocked to the Boeing Co.’s Everett plant this year. By the end of the month, more than 320,000 people are expected to have toured the plant and visited the Future of Flight Aviation Center, where the Boeing Tour starts and ends.

From whale watching to whitewater rafting, Snohomish County’s tourism industry is big and getting bigger. Tourists spend about $1 billion a year here. That is double what it was in the early 2000s, said Tom Teigen, the county’s parks director.

Together, tourism and outdoor recreation bring in between $2 billion and $3 billion and support more than 20,000 jobs — and there’s room to grow, he said.

“The industry itself is building capacity,” Teigen said, referring to the spate of new hotels recently opened or under construction.

The Future of Flight Aviation Center &Boeing Tour have broken attendance records for several years in a row now.

“This is the best year ever — and we keep saying that,” said Sandy Ward, marketing director for the Institute of Flight, which operates the center for Snohomish County.

This year’s attendance is expected to be 8 percent more than 2015, which saw a 10 percent bump in traffic over the previous year.

While most visitors are from the U.S., many are from abroad. China is the fastest growing market for the center and tour.

The increasing influx of Chinese visitors has been spurred by a stronger renminbi or yuan, China’s currency, compared to the U.S. dollar, and last year’s visit to Paine Field by the country’s President Xi Jinping, Ward said.

The Future of Flight Aviation Center &Boeing Tour saw a similar bump in Chinese tourists after a visit in 2006 by Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao.

While the Boeing Tour is the main attraction, the number of visitors to the center’s gallery has increased in recent years — from 11,600 in 2014 to about 21,000 this year, Ward said.

The Institute of Flight aims to increase that number next year. It is close to signing contracts to add new exhibits, she said.

Most of all, “we’re going to keep doing what we do” to get tourists in the door, she said.

That includes working with local and regional partners to promote out-of-town visitors. One of those collaborators is the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau, which operates an information desk inside the Future of Flight Aviation Center.

At the south end of Paine Field, the Flying Heritage Collection had a record number of visitors this year, too. About 35,000 people visited the museum, which focuses on warplanes and fighting vehicles from the World War II and Vietnam War eras. That tally is growing by about 2,000 a year, said Michelle Donoghue, the museum’s marketing and communications director.

The museum is expanding its focus beyond aviation to include more ground vehicles and interactive features. The goal is to attract more families, in addition to its other visitors, who tend to be older, she said.

“We’re looking for more hands-on experiences. The vehicles are a bit more sturdy,” so it’s easier to give kids an up-close look, she said. “I guess you can’t really hurt a tank.”

The Flying Heritage Collection also is adding more events, such as last month’s Tanksgiving, which featured Santa Claus riding in on a tank.

Aviation-related tourism is a well-established niche of Snohomish County.

Rural tourism could be drawing much larger crowds here, said Dan Moore, an outdoor recreation and tourism consultant.

Earlier this year, his firm, Pandion Consulting, helped the county, cities and businesses begin drafting long-term plans to attract more visitors to the river valleys and forests east of the I-5 corridor. Those efforts are still in early stages — but progressing, said Teigen at the county’s parks department.

Snohomish County has stunning rivers, valleys, trails and other natural features and picturesque rural communities. As important, all that is close to major urban areas, Moore said. “You’re not New Zealand, where you have to convince people to travel 13 hours just to get there.”

But none of those attractions are big enough to singularly bring in large crowds.

The county is doing just that with its Sky to Sound Water Trail proposal, which aims to get more people playing on several connected rivers that start in the mountains and flow into Puget Sound.

“If you weave a broader narrative that ties an area like that together,” then tourists will come, he said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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