Tourism bill draws strong support

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Proponents of SB 5251 say the bill will put Washington state back on track with tourism marketing ventures and give a boost to rural county economies. Photo: Jonathan Lucka

Washington is the only state in the country without a dedicated statewide tourism agency – and this has been the case since 2011.

To address the issue, state lawmakers have put forth a bill which would set up the structure and funding for a replacement. Proponents of the measure say it will bring a substantial return on investment and will help Washington better compete with neighboring states for attracting visitors.

On January 18, State Sen. Dean Takko (D-19) told his colleagues in the Senate Economic Development and International Trade Committee that he saw a need for a statewide tourism agency, especially while competing with states with largely funded tourism authorities.

“I have a lot of tourism in my district, so I am very much concerned about the fact that we don’t have a statewide tourism promotional program going on (while) most states around us spend $10 million, $20 million, $30 million to promote their state.”

SB 5251 would create the Washington Tourism Marketing Authority to manage statewide tourism marketing efforts. Takko is prime sponsor, and cosponsors include State Sens. Judy Warnick (R-13), Christine Rolfes (D-22) and Hans Zeiger (R-25).

Under the bill, 0.2 percent of retail taxes on lodging, car rentals and restaurants would fund the development of the statewide tourism marketing plan beginning July 2018. The bill also sets up the framework for private-public investment into its marketing account with $1 of state funding released for every $2 of private dollars donated.

The bill was introduced last session but did not receive a floor vote and stalled in Rules. The most recent version of the legislation changed the tax percentage from 0.1 to 0.2 percent and would allow the collection of up to $1.5 million in funding for fiscal year 2019 and up to $5 million for future bienniums.

“This is an important bill not only for my district but for the state,” said Takko. “The thing that is really critical to me is that it has the verbiage in there that the rural areas need to be concentrated on because some of us live in rural areas that depend on tourism.”

State Sen. Keith Wagoner (R-39) agreed that the bill would be essential for putting Washington’s tourism efforts back on track with the rest of the country.

“I get a flier from Alaska that says, ‘come see our eagles’ and it’s beautiful and it’s professional. I get one from Colorado that says, ‘come see our mountains.’ Well we have eagles and mountains, and it’s about time we solve this problem.”

In 2011, budget cuts forced the statewide tourism office to close, leaving Washington as the only state in the nation without a dedicated statewide tourism authority. In 2014, the Legislature directed the Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA) to assume the role of a statewide tourism authority in the absence of a state office.

“A state like Oregon spends $31 million marketing Oregon to the outside world,” Becky Bogard, lobbyist for the WTA, told committee members. “The appropriations that WTA has gotten since 2011 has been in the area of half a million dollars a year, so we need this injection of dollars in a marketing program to really get this going.”

The investment made by the state would be a wise investment, according Bogard. She added that studies show that for every dollar invested in a marketing program, there is between a $2.50 to $20 return in state taxes.

In 2016, the tourism industry ranked 4th among Washington’s largest economic sectors, bring in $21 billion in visitor spending, which created 170,500 jobs and brought in $1.8 billion in state and local tax revenue.

“The importance of tourism in the economy is it is a sector that can expand rapidly, especially in the rural areas which have the assets we need to get people there to enjoy them. That in turn promotes jobs for people to manage those assets and manage those people,” said Bogard. “We really need to get this bill moving so we can get back in the game of bringing tourists into the state of Washington.

Andi Day, Executive Director of the Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau, told panel members the bill will have a large effect on the state’s rural economies.

“In Pacific County, for example, while we are small in terms of population with only 25,000 residents, we are blessed with natural beauty and resources and many tourism assets,” she said. “Tourism has a tremendous impact on, and is the cornerstone of, our economy.”

In 2016, $0.52 of every taxable dollar spent in Pacific county was by a visitor, she added. That year, visitors spent $172 million, equating to $12 million in state and local taxes. Also, 30 percent of jobs in the county are related to tourism.

“The rural areas, with our limited marketing resources and heavy reliance on tourism, continue to suffer the losses as Washington continues to lose market share to our neighboring states.”

With the passage of SB 5251, Day said:, “It is those same rural areas that have everything to gain in terms of visitor spending, state and local taxes and creation of jobs and careers.”

The Senate Economic Development and International Trade Committee approved the measure and sent it to Ways and Means.

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