After seven years as the only state with no tourism agency, the state legislature in 2018 revamped those efforts by creating the Washington Tourism Marketing Authority (WTMA). Now, stakeholders are working to determine how to properly brand Washington as a tourist destination, help struggling rural communities found in ideal tourism locations, and also avoid issues that can plague communities that find themselves economically dependent on tourism.
According to the state Department of Commerce, tourism provides jobs for more than 182,700 people in Washington and generates $21.4 billion in annual spending, making it the fourth-largest industry in the state. The importance of tourism to local economies is more pronounced in rural counties. A 2017 study by ECONorthwest found that tourism-related businesses provided nearly 20 percent of private employment in Chelan County. And in 2017, out-of-county visitors composed almost half of all taxable dollars in Pacific County.
“That’s a powerful piece of information that demonstrates beyond a shadow of the doubt the impact of…a real economy,” Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau Executive Director Andi Day said at a Oct. 4 meeting of the Legislative Committee on Economic Development & International Relations. Day is also the chair of the Washington Tourism Alliance’s (WTA) digital marketing subcommittee; Commerce has contracted with WTA to implement its 2018 marketing plan.
However, the strong tourism presence in the state’s diverse regions poses several challenges for a statewide promotional campaign. Lieutenant Governor and chair of Economic Development & International Relations Cyrus Habib remarked at the Oct. 4 meeting that “we’re never going to be the most famous Washington in America. It’s a real challenge from a branding perspective.”
Day added that “the challenge is to differentiate,” between the many tourism opportunities available “so that we’re not just promoting Seattle, but not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We want to make sure that stakeholders have input and that everybody all around the state feels that the branding…represents them and their area.”
Another hope for stakeholders is to use tourism promotion to help areas of the state struggling due to a lack of job opportunities. Habib said: “as the economy has shifted, some of the industries that made rural Washington so successful in the past are not as available anymore, and tourism is an area that we’ve really, really seen growth.”
Day noted that “the most effective (tourism) brands are integrated with government and economic development.” According to the Daily Astorian, tourism spending in Pacific County – with a population of 22,000 – increased by 38 percent between 2011 and 2017 from $124.8 million to $171.1 million. She added that the additional tax dollars provided by tourism “makes it easier and more affordable to live in Pacific County.
“If we’re using sustainable tourism growth initiatives, we want to make sure that we’re partnering with education, that we’re creating internship programs, that we’re creating awareness, that we’re creating opportunities for our young people to learn about our industries and opportunities. Not everyone is going to be a Boeing engineer, and that’s not healthy if that were the case.”
At the same time, other committee members expressed caution about the negative impacts that tourism can have on a rural community, such as placing greater strain on limited public resources and shifting local decision-making power from the community to tourists or outside investors.
Rep. Keith Goehner (R-13) said: “we’ve seen other areas around the country where tourism basically overruns the community. The heritage…is lost and you’re trying to accommodate those people that have been attracted to the area because it has generated an economic benefit, but it also has created some social and some infrastructure issues that you weren’t really prepared for.”
Day said: “we want to have an economy without destroying the very things that make this a wonderful place. It possible for rural areas to be economically viable while protecting and preserving their natural resources and their cultural heritage.”