When it comes to marketing a state for tourists, like sports you’re either in the game or you’re not. Washington state is not only out of the game, we’re nowhere near the parking lot. In July 2011, the state tourism office was shut down due to budget constraints. Meanwhile, our surrounding states (and main competitors) expanded their tourism marketing. California and British Columbia each now have budgets exceeding $50 million. Oregon spends more than $12 million to lure visitors. Idaho is around $9 million. Any of the 50 states spend more than Washington to attract visitors.
Why do states invest in tourism promotion? Because it makes good business sense. Michigan recently invested $30 million in its tourism efforts and created 10,000 new jobs and $43.5 million in tax revenues. Conversely in 1993, Colorado eliminated its tourism office. Research showed that Colorado’s domestic visitor market plunged 30 percent within two years, representing a loss of over $1.4 billion in tourism revenue annually. Recognizing they were “out of the game” and it was affecting their economy, officials starting funding a state tourism program some seven years later. But we can’t afford to wait seven years.
Tourism means jobs and new tax revenues, and it affects all regions of our state. Tourism is the fourth largest industry in Washington with nearly 150,000 jobs. Visitors spent $16.4 billion in 2011, generating more than $1.8 billion in state and local taxes. Yakima County is ranked eighth of the 39 counties in visitor spending with $350 million spent annually by visitors supporting more than 3,500 local jobs. Visitors also reduce your tax load. According to research conducted by Dean Runyan Associates of Portland, Washington families pay $400 less in annual taxes because of revenues generated by out-of-state visitors.
As the state tourism office closed, the tourism industry formed the Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA) to move tourism forward for Washington state. A primary focus of the organization has been to educate legislators, policy makers and business leaders of the importance of tourism for our economy, jobs and quality of life. We’ve been looking at the ways other states fund their tourism efforts.
A favored model being considered involves having tourism industry sectors pay assessments that are pooled together to market the state. That’s how they do it in California, and their program has been very successful. Getting industry support takes time (California took five years to pass its funding model).
In the meantime, WTA is asking for $1.9 million in “bridge” funding from the legislature until a more stable funding source is developed. This would cover website costs, postage to mail an industry funded visitor guide, a toll-free call center, research and some international marketing. Considering the average state tourism budget exceeds $14 million, that’s small change, but it’s a start in the right direction. I am encouraged that Gov. Jay Inslee supports these efforts in his Working Washington Agenda and hope the Legislature will also back these efforts.
If Washington wants to be in the tourism game, we need to be all in and support an industry-developed and industry-driven tourism marketing program. Otherwise we will strike out.
• John Cooper is the president and CEO of the Yakima Valley Visitors & Convention Bureau and represents Central Washington on the board of the Washington Tourism Alliance.