Tourism’s importance to the economy — locally and statewide — is as certain as Washington rain. And like the rain, it helps things grow.
Tourism is the state’s fourth-largest industry and Snohomish County’s third-largest.
It accounts for $21 billion in direct and indirect spending in the state. In 2015, visitors to Snohomish County spent more than $1 billion, including $308 million at restaurants, $275 million in retail sales, recreation and entertainment, $146 million on transportation and fuel and $141 million on accommodations, according to a 2015 Travel Impacts and Visitor Volume report for the state by Dean Runyan and Associates.
Digging deeper, the report found that Snohomish County tourism directly employs about 10,750 people, whose pay totals $273.9 million. It generates $33.1 million in local tax revenue and $66.2 million in state tax revenue. And that $1 billion in spending in 2015 represented a 2.1 percent increase over 2014’s spending by visitors.
But during the Great Recession, the Legislature, to cut the budget, closed the state tourism office in 2011. The most basic of tourism duties since then have been handled by a nonprofit, the Washington Tourism Alliance, using volunteers from among the tourism industry. The alliance publishes an annual state tourism guide and runs the ExperienceWA.com website.
Since 2011, Washington is the only state in the nation without a tourism office.
Despite relative strength and improvement of tourism in the state, tourism growth in 2015 was slower than the state’s overall taxable sales growth, the WTA’s Board Chairman Cheryl Kilday said last April.
More recently, Kilday told the Associated Press, the lack of a state tourism office has meant lost opportunities “to participate both domestically and internationally with other programs, because we don’t have the money at the state level to coordinate it.”
Amy Spain, executive director for the county’s tourism bureau, agrees the lack of a state authority has handcuffed marketing and promotion of tourism in the state.
Spain explained that operating without a state office makes it difficult for potential visitors who are organizing conferences, conventions and tournaments to know who to go to for information and assistance.
“All of us in the (individual bureaus) are out there on our own with no collective umbrella organization to help connect the dots,” Spain said Friday.
Snohomish County’s tourism bureau, the WTA, others in the tourism industry and now state lawmakers, are urging a restart for the state’s tourism office.
Bills in the House and Senate — HB 1123 and SB 5251 — would create the Washington Tourism and Marketing Authority. The authority would be responsible for work with a tourism industry organization to develop a marketing plan to promote tourism throughout the state, with a particular focus on rural tourism-dependent counties, the state’s natural wonders and recreational opportunities, attracting international visitors, promoting local tourism attractions and promoting tourism in areas that have been hurt by natural disasters, such as the 2014 Oso landslide.
The authority’s marketing and tourism efforts would be supported by as much as $5 million every two years. Rather than create a new tax, the money would be diverted from existing revenue, 0.1 percent of retail taxes on lodging, rental cars and restaurants. But in order to use the sales tax revenue, the tourism authority would have to raise matching funds at a 2-1 ratio from private and public sources that have an interest in promoting tourism. Along with providing most of the financial support, the state’s tourism industry will drive the marketing effort.
That sales tax diversion shouldn’t mean a loss in funding for programs and agencies that rely on it. Because of the expected two- to three-fold return on the investment — and one that is returned quickly — the state’s general fund could see a modest increase in revenue.
As well, it won’t be difficult to attract support from the tourism industry, said David Blandford, the communications chairman for the WTA. That support from industry and public agencies with an interest in tourism has already been underwriting the work of the alliance and related efforts and is eager to put its support behind a new state office.
Beyond the return on investment, a tourism authority would also allow the state to focus economic development in areas such as the Stillaguamish Valley between Arlington and Darrington, which is still working to rebuild its economy almost three years after the Oso landslide, and in regions and counties that haven’t shared in the economic growth seen along the I-5 corridor counties of Snohomish, King and Pierce.
Our state and county offer attractions and activities too numerous to mention. By sharing them with visitors we can provide jobs and generate revenue for local and state government.
Resuming an organized statewide effort to promote that is worth the investment.