Longtime Wenatchee lawmaker George Sellar often lamented that Washington was missing the boat by under-funding tourism promotion and, in fact, had no strategy to compete with our neighboring states.
He argued, often to no avail, that investing tax dollars promoting Washington would return greater revenue to state and local governments than it cost.
Sellar, who spent 30 years in the state Senate before his death in December 2000, contended that tourism is our state’s fourth largest industry and believed attracting vacationers to our state, particularly rural areas, was an integral part of revitalizing the economies of smaller communities.
Over the years, Sellar would see the barrage of attractive television commercials from neighboring states and pushed lawmakers to make a similar investment promoting Washington. However, at the end of the day there was no funding.
Sellar, a mild-mannered guy who got along with nearly everyone, often groused that Washington is one of the most beautiful and diverse places in the world but we don’t spend a “plug nickel” telling outsiders about it.
After his death, the situation degraded to the point where the State Tourism Office was closed in 2011. It became clear that a new approach involving the private sector was necessary. That is happening and hopefully it will be successful.
The Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA) was formed as a public-private partnership and in 2018, Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation creating a Tourism Marketing Authority. The Authority is eligible for up to $4.5 million a year in state funds as long as the private sector matches $2 for every $1 of tax money.
That fund allows the WTA to develop a comprehensive strategy and market events and attractions domestically and internationally.
Looking at what our neighboring states and Canadian provinces spend on promotion, it is easy to understand Sellar’s frustration. According to WTA data for 2016-17 state tourism budgets, while Washington spent $0, adjacent states/provinces spend millions — California ($117 million), British Columbia ($50 million), Oregon ($32 million), Montana ($19 million) and Idaho ($5 million). In other parts of America, Hawaii spent $87 million, Florida $86 million and even Texas $53 million.
Travel and tourism are among the largest industries in the United States. According to The Statistics Portal website they contributed $1.5 trillion to our GDP in 2015 and provided 5.5 million jobs. As a combined industry, they are projected to grow and generate $2.6 trillion by 2027.
Foreign visitors are expected to increase in the years ahead as well. There were 75 million non-resident visitors in 2015 and of those visitors, travelers from China spent $30 billion.
WTA reports direct visitor spending in Washington in 2015 was $20.7 billion. Alliance research showed the travel industry supported 170,500 jobs that year and local and state travel-generated tax revenue was up 8 percent from 2014 and totaled $1.8 billion.
According to Statistics Portal, more than half of all travelers take beach vacations, 30 percent go on cruises, and, 29 percent prefer city visits — all of which are good for Washington. It is not just ocean beaches, but freshwater ones such as at Lake Chelan.
Since 2000, Seattle has grown to the top West Coast cruise port with 216 vessels and 1.1 million passengers boarding large cruise ships last year. The Port of Seattle estimated cruise ships generate over $500 million a year and employ 4,000 workers.
As more and more people around the world have the money and time to travel, it is important that our state be positioned to be part of that growth. Our chances are better if we promote all of our state beauty and uniqueness.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.