Jon Talton, May 29, 2015, Seattle Times
Tourism is big business in the region despite loss of state agency to attract visitors from around the world.
Who would want to play golf in Tacoma? It rains all the time and its freezing. Oh, wait …
I’m afraid the secret is out and not merely with the U.S. Open.
Despite our image, carefully crafted in part to keep people from moving here, the Puget Sound area and Washington state do a very good job of separating money from the people who visit here.
In this land of software nerds, airplane builders and two major container ports, it’s easy to forget that tourism is a big part of the state and regional economies. It runs year-round, but really takes off in summer.
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“People realize there’s so much more to see than the Space Needle,” said Vlad Gutman, senior policy director of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition.
Indeed, Tourism Economics, a national research firm, calculated that overnight visitors to Seattle and King County hit a record 19.2 million last year. That was a 3.7 percent increase from the previous year. The national average was 3 percent growth.
Those visitors spent $6.4 billion, up 6.4 percent, and paid $643 million in state and local taxes. Visit Seattle, a nonprofit tourism-marketing organization, commissioned the report.
The Port of Seattle is a major cruise terminal, with 179 vessels bringing 823,780 passengers last year. In 2015, a total of 192 cruise ships are expected, with a forecast of more than 895,000 passengers. Many shop in the city, eat in restaurants and stay at hotels.
“Cruise season this year means almost a half a billion dollars to the local economy,” said Port Commissioner John Creighton. “We are proud to be the busiest cruise Port on the U.S. West Coast and we are working with the cruise lines toward our goal of doubling the economic impact of the cruise business to Washington state in the next 25 years.”
Tourism is also a big supporter of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which logged nearly 37.5 million passengers last year, up 7.7 percent from 2013.
The state beyond the Seattle area has plenty to offer tourists, too, from spectacular mountains and dramatic seascapes to a booming wine region.
Foreign visitors are a significant part of the mix. According to the Census Bureau, Washington was the 13th most visited state by foreign travelers in 2010, the most recent year available. Seattle was the 15th most visited city. The numbers are sure to grow if Delta Air Lines builds out an international hub at Sea-Tac.
Unfortunately, Washington became the only state to close its tourism office in 2011. Some of the slack has been taken up by the private Washington Tourism Alliance, but it’s not the same as having a government agency to market the state to travelers.
Olympia saved $1.8 million, down from $7 million the previous year. At the same time, Michigan was spending $25 million. The lack of state promotion is hard on small towns and rural areas without the capacity of Visit Seattle.
The loss of market share against other states is difficult to calculate. Yet tourism and recreation offer a major opportunity for growth.
“People across the country know how incredibly beautiful our state is,” Gutman, of the state recreation coalition, told me. “Less well known is the critical role Washington’s public lands and natural heritage play in our prosperity. Fueling this economic engine requires a commitment from our elected leaders to conserving and opening these lands to the public.”
For example, a report prepared for the state Recreation and Conservation Office found that out-of-state visitors spend $3.4 billion every year on outdoor recreation statewide. The multiplier effect for these tourists calculated $4.6 billion in economic impact. They supported more than 198,000 jobs.
For context, Washington’s total gross domestic product in 2013 was $408 billion.
In other words, this is not a state where tourism is king, as in Arizona, Nevada or Florida. But having and leveraging it makes a diverse economy even more so. Visitors are the lifeblood of many small towns.
And while many jobs associated with tourism are lower paying, the economy, especially in the Puget Sound area, provides many more pathways up. The narrow economy of, say, Arizona keeps most tourism workers in dead-end positions.
Washington faces the long-term head winds confronting every state: the diminishing purchasing power of Americans. In 2013, median household income was lower than in 1989. Such trends as offshoring jobs and the increasing automation of even white-collar work presents a huge challenge.
People will have to become pickier about where they visit.
Lawmakers may think the state sells itself. But millions of people really do think it rains all the time and the weather is freezing year-round. So a good start for policymakers would be to reopen the tourism office with a competitive budget.
In the meantime, Happy Summer in glorious Washington.