February 13, 2013 | LXXII, No. 46

Washington state missing out on tourist dollars

Guest Column

When we moved from Montana to Olympia 35 years ago, we saw enticing television and magazine ads for our neighboring states, but none for Washington. Fast forward to 2013 and nothing has changed. It was puzzling then, but even more perplexing today, considering the money and jobs at stake.

Tourism in our state is no small potatoes, it is big business. Visitors spent $16.4 billion in 2011 and accounted for 150,000 direct jobs, which is nearly twice Boeing’s workforce in our state. But our state invests no money -- nothing, zippo, nada -- in statewide tourism promotion.

Now, consider what Florida is doing. Last year, Florida’s legislature increased state funding for VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s tourism marketing organization, by 55 percent to $54 million a year.

It makes financial sense because tourism is Florida’s largest industry, employing more than a million people and accounting for 23 percent of its sales tax collections. In 2011, Florida welcomed 86.5 million visitors, generating $67.2 billion in direct economic impact.

Gov. Rick Scott (R), who pushed the enhanced tourism budget through the legislature, said. “This investment is good for Florida taxpayers because for every dollar spent on tourism marketing, VISIT FLORIDA generates $177 in tourism spending and $11 in new sales tax collections.”

Other states recognize what tourism adds to their economies, and some have learned the hard way what happens when you don’t sell your state to the traveling public.

For example, when Colorado lost its statewide tourism program in 1993, tourism dropped 38 percent in seven short years. In contrast, Michigan invested $30 million, which resulted in 10,000 new jobs and $43.5 million in new tax revenues.

Over the years, state funding for tourism in Washington has been a hit-and-miss proposition. In good times, legislators toss a few million to the travel industry, but when things get tight, tourism funding is one of the first things on the chopping block.

In 2006, the Legislature allocated a paltry $500,000 and got “SayWA.” It misfired. In short, we got what we paid for and even today, we live with that unfortunate stigma. In 2011, the Legislature defunded our state’s tourism office.

Stacked against the tourism budgets in neighboring Montana ($18 million), Oregon ($12 million), British Columbia ($55 million) and Idaho ($9 million), you can see why slogans like “SayWA” don’t resonate like “Beautiful BC” or “Big Sky Country.”

Over the years, Washington governors and legislatures have treated tourism as a marginal program, whereas most of the other states and provinces view it as essential to their economy. We whack it when budgets are tight. They don’t.

In 2011, when the state jettisoned the tourism office, the Washington Tourism Alliance formed to market Washington. The WTA wants the tourism industry, rather than the government, to fund those high-quality ads you see on the web, in magazines and on television.

To jumpstart the effort, WTA is asking the Legislature for $1.9 million in seed money. According to Kevin Clark, owner of Argosy Cruises in Seattle and WTA chair, “State involvement is necessary as both the short term funding and implementation of the long term self-assessment funding model will need to be approved by the Legislature.”

The WTA is modeled after California’s program where private industry partners fund 98 percent of that state’s tourism promotion.

The WTA notes that Washington families pay $400 less in taxes because of revenue generated from out-of-state visitors. As long as funding a tourism effort generates more revenue than it costs, the decision for legislators is clear: Washington can’t afford not to invest in tourism.

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