House lawmakers on Feb. 20 heard public comment on a bill which would establish a statewide tourism agency that proponents say would fill the gap left in 2011 when the Legislature elected to cut funding for the statewide tourism office.
Lawmakers and tourism stakeholders alike argue that the measure will encourage additional spending in rural areas of the state and attract more visitors.
SB 5251 would create the Washington Tourism Marketing Authority to oversee the statewide tourism marketing plan.
The bill’s prime sponsor is State Sen. Dean Takko (D-19), and its cosponsors include State Sens. Judy Warnick (R-13), Christine Rolfes (D-23) and Hans Zeiger (R-25).
The Senate on Feb. 10 approved the measure in a unanimous vote, with two excused. On Feb. 20, the bill received its first public House hearing before the Community, Technology and Economic Development Committee.
Takko expressed his disappointment with Washington’s tourism efforts compared to neighboring states.
“We need to do some tourism promotions statewide, and it’s been kind of frustrating to me when I sit and watch TV and I see these ads that say: ‘come to beautiful Michigan’ or ‘spend your time in Utah and ride your bike’…but I don’t think they are saying these kinds of things about Washington.”
Takko voiced his excitement that the bill targets rural areas of the state, as people may know about Seattle but not necessarily what Long Beach or Walla Walla have to offer.
“What we need to do is get that message out that when you come to rural Washington there’s a lot of interesting things to see.”
The measure would create a board of directors for the authority, consisting of one lawmaker from both caucuses in the House and Senate and nine members from the tourism industry, including business representatives from lodging, outdoor recreation and retail.
State Rep. Kristine Reeves (D-30) said the bill would allow for large return on investments for a relatively small startup cost. “As an economic developer in my day job, it actually is quite stunning to me to come to this body and not see a tourism entity on behalf of the state.
“Ultimately, for the small investment that we are asking the state to make in this, we will really maximize returns across multiple industries in our state and make sure that we are generating revenue outside of Washington.”
Beginning July 1, 2018, the bill would require 0.2 percent of retail sales tax collected on restaurants, lodging and car rentals to be used to fund the implementation of the authority’s statewide marketing plan. The account would be capped at $1.5 million for fiscal year 2019 and up to $3 million for each biennium thereafter.
Don Malatesta owns the Inn at Mallard Cove just outside of the Nisqually National Wildlife Reserve. He testified representing his business, as well as the Washington Bed and Breakfast Guild.
“I have personal experience with how much embarrassment I’ve suffered with the lack of a state tourism program,” he told panel members.
Malatesta added that while tourists will come to Washington state if something attracts them, currently, there aren’t any ads to convince anyone to visit.
“We can survive, but we can do better,” he said. “Any incremental change in occupancy in my personal inn or my guild’s inns will generate more sales tax.”
After public commentary, the committee voted SB 5251 out of committee. It is not currently scheduled for a hearing in another committee.