Putting Washington on the Tourism Map

Putting Washington on the Tourism Map https://wahospitality.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/tourism0117a.jpg

By Paul Schlienz

Is there a state that has more to offer visitors than Washington? We’ve got beaches, rain forests, mountains, deserts, big cities, small towns, an inland sea, rolling hills of wheat, the scent of apple blossoms, fields of tulips, a rich ethnic mix of peoples and cultures, rivers – wild and tamed, historic sites, wineries, fishing, hunting, and recreational opportunities of all kinds, plus four real seasons and a multitude of climates, from the cooler climes west of the Cascades to the drier Eastern side of the state.

Washington has it all, and travelers are coming here from all over the world to experience it.

Visit Seattle, a private, nonprofit marketing organization serving as Seattle and King County’s official destination marketing organization, focuses much of its efforts on attracting tourists from six key overseas markets in Asia and Europe – the U.K., Germany, France, South Korea, Japan and China.

Here’s why: Tourism is a $20 billion industry in Washington that annually generates $1.8 billion in tax revenue and supports more than 170,500 jobs, according to Dean Runyan Associates data. It’s also the state’s fourth largest sector for employment and its fifth largest export-oriented industry.

Washington Travelers

  • Spend $16.4 Billion throughout the state
  • Generate $1.8 Billion in state and local taxes
  • Create over 170,500 Jobs

Figures courtesy of the Washington Tourism Alliance based on a Dean Runyan Associates travel impacts report.

It goes without saying that tourism is the lifeblood of hotels, but it is also of great importance to restaurants. Nationally, approximately $1 of every $4 spent in restaurants is directly related to tourism, according to a National Restaurant Association study.

“If you have a strong tourism image, it does a lot more than just bringing tourists to your state,” said Cheryl Kilday, board chair of the Washington Tourism Alliance, a 501 (c)(6) organization established in 2011 by the Washington Restaurant Association, Washington Lodging Association and other industry stakeholders. Its mission is to advocate, promote, develop and sustain the economic well-being of Washington’s tourism industry.

“A strong tourism industry in Washington will also help encourage businesses to locate here, will help businesses recruit employees and it will help recruit university students from other states and countries,” said Kilday. “We need to be using all our resources to be saying ‘Washington! Washington! Washington!’”

Thanks to the efforts of destination marketing organizations like Visit Seattle at the city and county level, and the visibility generated by the official Washington State Visitors’ Guide and the advertising spend of resorts and hotels, word does get out about Washington. Add to that Washington’s cultural draw, from the Twilight series, music superstars like Macklemore and Dave Matthews, and movie and TV classics like Sleepless in Seattle and Frasier, as well as our iconic brands Starbucks, Microsoft and Boeing. It goes without saying that Washington state is far from being an unknown quantity throughout the world.

But it is not all it could be.

Lagging Behind

Despite the importance of tourism for state and local economies, Washington does not currently invest in statewide tourism promotion. In fact, it is the only state in the country that does not have a state-level tourism office. That’s because in 2011 the Washington State Legislature eliminated Washington’s Office of Tourism, cutting all funding for promoting the state as a travel destination.

The Office of Tourism employed six people at the time and had a budget of $1.8 million. The year before it was shut, it had a budget of $7 million, and more than $10 million several years earlier. Much of its funding, however, was routinely “swept” and redirected to other state needs, undercutting marketing efforts and frustrating industry partners who understood the clear return on investing in tourism promotion at the state level.

In the wake of the Office of Tourism’s closure, tourism industry stakeholders got to work on creating an industry entity that would oversee the establishment of a sustainable, long-term funding model. Well aware that Washington’s tourism industry would lose visitors to neighboring states with large tourism budgets and British Columbia, these stakeholders formed the WTA in 2012.


  • State Tourism Office Budgets for FY 2015
  • California             $119.9 million
  • Oregon  $14.4 million
  • Utah       $17 million
  • Arizona $24 million
  • Hawaii   $76.9 million
  • Nevada  $14.1 million
  • Montana               $16.3 million
  • Washington         $0

Source:  Interactive Travel Analytics tool, U. S. Travel Association

In 2014 the WTA with the support of WRA, WLA, and industry partners began a three year battle to secured the passage of legislation that established the principle of a privately-funded state tourism and marketing program, based on industry assessments on five sectors: lodging, food service, retail, attractions and entertainment and transportation. That year legislation was passed to support the industries working together on the initial framework, In 2015, the long-term funding model was introduced, unfortunately failing to pass om 2015 and again in 2016.

WRA, WLA, WTA, and members of the legislature are collaborating on a new proposed funding mechanism to be introduced in the 2017 legislative session.

“We need to have an aggressive plan to get the word out about Washington,” said Kilday. “Other states are better funded and better able to reach out to key markets. I’d like to see the state go after the Asian market more aggressively – there’s lots of growth in tourism in those countries, especially China.”

She is hopeful that the WTA will finally receive funding from the Legislature in 2017.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll be successful in gaining legislative support for a tourism program,” said Kilday. “I hope we can talk with the legislators about the revenue benefits of tourism, and how it can help them solve their budget problems. The ripple effect from tourism into other sectors provides a real opportunity to grow the economy, which will come back to the state in taxes. Everybody wins.”

A Tale of Two States

Concern about Washington’s lack of statewide tourism marketing is not unfounded. One need only look to Colorado for a cautionary tale.

Colorado’s tourism office lost all state funding in 1993 and did not regain a reliable revenue stream until 2000. Despite much to offer tourists with its mix of spectacular mountain scenery, skiing, deserts, urban opportunities, historic sites and much more, Colorado has yet to regain the tourist market share it had before 1993.

South of us, Oregon also has plenty to teach us about investing in tourism. Unlike Washington, the Oregon Legislature is in full support of tourism marketing and fully behind Travel Oregon, the trade name for the Oregon Tourism Commission. And the results are spectacular.

Travel Oregon’s “The Seven Wonders of Oregon” campaign, launched in 2014, was a coordinated effort via TV, social media and the Travel Oregon website to connect with potential tourists in Europe, Asia, the United States and Canada, encouraging them to explore the state’s spectacular scenery. It was so successful that they switched after one year to their current “We Like It Here” campaign.

“We’re trying to tell people that ‘We like Oregon, we like you and we want you to visit our state,” said Linea Gagliano, Travel Oregon’s director of global communications. “That we have the state fully supporting our efforts is very important. It gives us the ability to talk about Oregon in an effective, coordinated way.”

It also helps grow Oregon’s tourism industry, which increased 4.7 percent last year.

Far from seeing Washington as a competitor for the tourist dollar, Gagliano hopes it will develop a fully-funded tourism outreach.

“We look at tourism from a regional perspective,” said Gagliano. “If Washington is doing well at attracting tourists, it will benefit Oregon and vice versa. We do not see Washington’s lack of a state tourism office as a loss of competition. We see it as a loss of an important part of our Northwest regional voice.”

(Source: Washington Hospitality Magazine, October 2016)

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