Wildfires Can Also Scorch Tourism, But Washington Communities Are Battling Back

Washington state government no longer promotes state to visitors.

Wildfires Can Also Scorch Tourism, But Washington Communities Are Battling Back
Outdoor recreation including out-of-state visitors is a boon to the Washington economy. Heavy wildfires in 2014 and 2015 have prompted some tourism hubs to step up their marketing campaigns. Seen here: hikers in The Enchantments. Photo: laffertyryan.

Damage to homes and communities from Washington wildfires in 2014 and 2015 has been dramatic. Along with rebuilding lives and buildings, reclaiming scorched land, and working with governments to beef up wildfire response and prevention, some towns have also been learning about repairing damage to their economies. That’s because many Washington outdoor recreation destinations and the businesses that rely on outdoor tourism have felt the heat from wildfires.

Tourism-based communities that are recovering have successfully used promotion and marketing to lure back outdoor enthusiasts.

Outdoor Rec Boosts Economy

Outdoor recreation is a powerhouse industry in Washington. Based on 2011 and 2012 surveys and not counting impacts of hunting, fishing and outdoor wildlife viewing, it generated $22.5 billion in consumer spending annually and provides 227,000 direct jobs in the state. It also provided $1.6 billion annually in state and local tax revenue. That’s according to a report by the Outdoor Industry Association. However, things have changed.

Though tourism is the fourth largest industry here, Washington hasn’t had a state tourism agency since 2011. As a result, it now spends the least amount of any state on tourism marketing and promotion. The nonprofit Washington Tourism Alliance was formed, but lately has been scratching for funds.

Washington state lawmakers have been exploring ways to restore some public funding to tourism promotion but the onus is now largely upon private industry and local and county governments. The impact of wildfires on tourism adds to the challenges, but some modest success stories are emerging.

Communities that rely heavily on outdoor recreation have emphasized its importance during recent listening sessions held by Governor Jay Inslee’s Wildland Fire Council. The council was formed after the 2015 wildfire season to make wildfire prevention and firefighting funding recommendations for the 2017-19 budget.

Wildfires Can Disrupt Recreation

The biggest concern raised by local stakeholders at the council’s April 8 listening session in Brewster, in Okanagan County, was how wildfires disrupt outdoor recreation activities in the area, according to the Governor’s outdoor recreation and economic development policy advisor, Jon Snyder.

Tourism marketing is a strategy that has also been successfully used by the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce following last year’s Chelan Complex Fire. The wildfire burned an estimated 88,000 acres, destroyed 85 homes and forced 1,000 people to evacuate the city. It broke out in August, when the outdoor businesses generate most of their revenue.

The impacts could be observed in the local tax revenue drop. The city of Chelan’s combined sales and lodging tax revenue for August decreased by approximately 37 percent compared to the same time in 2014.

Mike Steele is the executive director of the chamber. After the wildfire season had ended and the area had recovered, he said the chamber pulled together $250,000 for a five week-long advertising campaign intended to entice tourists back to Chelan area. “‘We need your support now more than ever’ was the message,” he said.

The strategy worked. In the following months they were able to recoup the lost revenues, and no businesses were forced to close as a result of the wildfires, Steele said.

Winthrop Steps Up

Another part of the state which has felt the heat is the Methow Valley in northeastern Washington. It is a popular outdoor destination, but there are only a handful of highways providing access. The valley was the epicenter of the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire, the largest wildfire in state history. It burned over 250,000 acres.

Methow Valley communities like Winthrop were not hit with a major wildfire last year, but the thick smoke coming from other areas was enough to scare off tourists and turn the Old West-style city into a ghost town.

Julie Muyllaert is the co-owner of Methow Cycle and Sport in Winthrop. She is also a Winthrop Chamber of Commerce board member and a participant in the Methow Valley Long Term Recovery Group, formed after the Carlton Complex Fire.

Working Hard On Tourism Messaging, Afterwards

In recent years, the chamber has increased marketing promotion for Winthrop’s local winter outdoor activities, she said. The city is located next to the country’s largest cross-country ski area. Muyllaert said this marketing tactic has helped mitigate the financial harm caused by wildfire seasons.

Marketing is an important step toward recovering from wildfires because it helps offset the negative perception of the area, she added. This perception can cause people to go elsewhere for outdoor activities. “When things are back to normal and good, that’s not as much of a story,” Muyllaert said. “We have to work really hard to get the message out that it’s safe to return and it’s beautiful.

A major concern of wildfire-prone communities is that tourists stop coming well after the fires have been put out, said Snyder. “People need to know just because there’s a wildfire doesn’t mean when it’s over you’re totally closed down,” he said.

Wildfires can also disrupt outdoor recreation directly by forcing state and federal to close areas in or near fires. Last year, the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was forced to close the popular Leader Lake and Rock Creek campgrounds, both located in Okanogan County. Although some of the Leader Lake campground sites have been restored, Rock Creek still remains closed.

The U.S. Forest Service last year closed off a section of the Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forest near Leavenworth even though there were no wildfires near it, because budget shifts to fight fires depleted resources to keep it open. As a result, groups like the Mountaineers canceled planned hikes there.

The Mountaineers are a Washington-based outdoor education nonprofit with over 11,000 members. It leads members on hiking, climbing, scrambling, sailing, kayaking and skiing excursions. Katherine Hollis is the Mountaineer’s conservation and advocacy director. In addition to forest closures, she said wildfire smoke can dissuade outdoor enthusiasts even in areas where there are no wildfires when it ruins the scenery or creates a health hazard.

Smoke-Obscured Views ‘Heartbreaking’

Last year smoke from the Chelan Complex Fire spread all the way to Seattle. Wildfire smoke also blocked the view in the north Cascades where Hollis went climbing at Forbidden Peak. When she got to the top of she said it was “heartbreaking” to be “inundated with smoke.”

Recently the Forest Service has engaged in a practice called “fire borrowing” in which money from other parts of the agency budget is used to cover rising firefighting costs. When this happens, it can prevents clubs like the Mountaineers from carrying out outdoor recreation programs programs that require Forest Service permits because the resources aren’t there to issue them.

“Every summer, many of the resources set aside for program delivery benefiting recreation gets diverted to fight fires,” the club wrote in a September 2015 letter to Washington U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell. “Agency programs that benefit recreation often happen in the summer season, putting recreation budgets on a collision course with fire suppression costs.”

Cantwell and four other U.S. senators are working on draft legislation intended to stop fire borrowing.

Outdoors-Focused Visitors Key

Wildfires can potentially deter out-of-state tourists who contribute significantly to the outdoor industry. A 2015 state economic analysis found that out-of-state visitors accounted for an estimated 27 percent of total outdoor recreation spending in Washington.

The report states further, “Every dollar spent by an out-of-state traveler in Washington generates $1.36 in economic impacts, resulting in a total of $4.6 billion in new money circulating in the state’s economy. A total of 46,430 jobs or 23 percent of total outdoor recreation-supported jobs in Washington are a result of expenditures by out-of-state visitors. The results of the out-of-state visitor impact analysis highlight the importance of promoting outdoor recreation in Washington beyond state borders.”

Snyder thinks the legislature should consider state-level tourism promotion as a way to help recovering communities following a natural disaster.

“It would be great to have some money set aside for those communities to plan, recover and promote after they’re impacted by this sort of thing,” he said. It might also allow the state to get more information on the outdoor industry, and better determine how wildfires affect it, he added.

Fine-Tuning The Funding Vehicle

There have been several legislative attempts to revive state tourism promotion, but they’ve failed to clear committee.

Informed Olympia sources say new legislation could be introduced in 2017 with a different funding model than proposed in the previous bills. One would have imposed a 15 cent tax per occupied room per night in every lodging business in this state. Another would have set up a business and occupation tax credit for businesses which contributed to the tourism program.

However, House Majority Whip Kevin Van De Wege (D-24) told Lens it’s unlikely the legislature will set up a new state-run tourism agency. The “best case scenario” for any new proposal would have the tourism businesses come up with the funding source themselves, he said.

Senate Vice President Pro Tempore Sharon Brown (R-8) is the chair of the Senate Trade and Economic Development Committee and a part of a bipartisan work group looking at possible tourism legislation. She said one of the difficulties for the group is figuring out how to come up with promotion that complements existing tourism marketing carried out at a local level. Another is developing a funding source that doesn’t place an undue financial burden on smaller businesses in the state.

“The challenge is finding a way to make it fair and equitable for everyone,” she said.

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