Its biggest competitor was right next door: Oregon offered many of the same features as Washington – an urban center in Portland, ocean shores, mountains and vineyards – and spent tens of millions of dollars a year on its program tourism development and promotion.
“They’ve been on the minds of consumers, they’ve been on the minds of tour operators,” Blandford said. “They built the foundation.”
The Washington Tourism Alliance and other players in the tourism industry have documented lost opportunities to attract visitors — and their impact on the economy and tax revenues of state legislators for several years.
Finally, in 2018, the state passed legislation outlining a mechanism to generate funds for the promotion and management of state tourism by allocating a portion of state sales tax dollars and matching tourism sector dollars.
Just two years later, the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the importance of tourism to the state’s economy, tourism industry officials said.
According to figures from Tourism Economics, visitor spending in the state was $13 billion in 2020, down 41% from the previous year. Spending increased in 2021 to $17.7 billion, but remained below pre-pandemic levels.
“When the world stopped, we [saw] the impact of having no one in your town, of having no one in your store, your restaurant,” said Nan Marchand Beauvois, senior vice president of member and industry relations for the US Travel Association. “I think most of our top tourist destinations in the United States understand what a month without visitors looks like and the negative impacts of that.”
Of 40 states that reported tourism promotion and management budgets to the US Travel Association, 29, including Washington, reported an increase from fiscal year 2020-21 to fiscal year 2021-22. Eight other states maintained their tourism budgets and only three states reported a decrease.
For 2022, State of Washington Tourism has approximately $9 million to spend on destination promotion and management. Only $3 million of that came from the new budget mechanism, with the rest coming from a biennial budget clause passed last year to help the tourism industry recover from the pandemic.
Washington is still catching up to neighboring states with much larger budgets. According to rough estimates provided by Blandford, the next state is Idaho, with $13 million. Oregon’s and California’s budgets are several times higher, at $40 million and $120 million, respectively.
Still, this year’s budget is a vast improvement over having to scrape dollars, which the Washington Tourism Alliance has had to do for several years.
With the single budget clause set to expire next year, Mr Blandford said evolving the public/private funding model would be crucial to maintain additional funding.
Meanwhile, individual communities are finding ways to generate new tourism promotion dollars. Seattle City Council voted to double city hotel fees to increase the city’s marketing budget and compete with better-funded destinations like Portland.
“We are rebuilding. We are recovering,” Blandford said. “We need to get to a place where we can sustain the programs year after year.”