Assessing the problems facing local tourism

    Things are shaping up for a busy summer in the tourism industry. It’s hard to imagine that things can be tough during the peak of the season, but one thing is certain in the tourism industry: shift happens.
   Few people would question that travel can be volatile. Tourism professionals know that their industry is exposed to political, health, and economic undulations. While some items are out of our control (hello, mother nature), an awareness of current challenges can help us prepare and seek ways to lessen the negative aspects.
   Dr. Peter Tarlow, president of T&M Associates and a specialist in the sociology of tourism, recently wrote of trends that affect this diverse industry.  Below are some of the current challenges he believes face the tourism industry, and comments I have added that address these issues locally:
   Tourism is a highly taxed industry.  Outside of the tourism and travel industry, few people realize just how many taxes travelers pay.
   Look at the percentage of taxes paid on an airline ticket, a hotel room, or a rental car. In some locations, almost 40 percent of the travel commodity’s cost comes from add-on taxes. Tourists, meeting planners and business travelers are starting to pay more attention to the tax loads they bear, and taking their business to communities that tax less. For Bellingham, we should do the best we can to minimize taxing travelers unfairly.
   Global standardization has produced less-unique destinations. The globalized marketplace means that often the same products are available throughout the world.
   If part of the reason for travel is to have the opportunity to explore the unique and different, then the sameness factor is a major tourism challenge.
   For Bellingham and all of Whatcom County we have to continue to embrace and develop those things that make us unique. Efforts by Sustainable Connections and others to showcase local products are a step in the right direction.
   Tourism and travel are highly dependent on the cost of fuel. Summer is the high season for travel and with the cost of gasoline on the rise, many travelers may have to adjust their spending (or vacation length) in order to pay for additional fuel charges. To address this issue, Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism is currently doing a gas card promotion in Seattle to encourage weekday vacations.
   Safety is a challenge facing the tourism industry. The current population is aging perhaps like no other one in history. As the baby boom generation increasingly approaches its sixth decade of life, many of its members are refusing to slow down.
   Although the baby-boomers bodies are aging, travel and tourism officials are seeing many of these people practicing all sorts of physical activities, from motorcycling to skiing. This "refusal" to sit back and grow old means that tourism officials will be facing all sorts of safety issues.
   Mobile medical units may be needed, others will need special diets and readily available pharmacies open 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Fortunately, Bellingham has excellent health services, clinics and emergency rescue operations to aid travelers, but more may be needed.
   Closely related to safety issues are health issues such as pandemics that can easily cause tourism panics.
   Not only can a drop in water quality (purity) become a major tourism issue, but also the industry must face the reality of pandemics and/or pandemic scares. The SARS "scare" ought to have reminded communities that a few media stories can wreak havoc on the tourism industry. 
   I am very confident in the abilities of our emergency responders and health agencies in Bellingham and Whatcom County, but much responsibility falls on state and national agencies and out of our local control.
   Political conditions will continue to be a challenge for the tourism industry. On the international front, tourism will continue to have to deal with an ever more complicated and confusing political reality.
   For example, despite governments claiming that they support tourism, visa restrictions have become more complicated. These circumstances make travel more difficult.
   In Bellingham we have definitely seen this to be the case with proposed increased documentation needed to cross the U.S./Canadian border. Progress is being made to ease the flow of travel on the border thanks to the Bellingham Whatcom Chamber and national alliances.
   The fact is, shift happens in all industries. The secret is being able to foresee what may be down the road and plan for it, while having systems in place to respond to the unexpected. Happy travels!

John Cooper is the President and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom Tourism.


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