State set to boost tourism budget

    It’s a sad fact. Funding by the state to market Washington as a tourism destination is abysmal. Washington is ranked 47th in the nation for tourism budgets, and dead last among the 13 Western U.S. states.
   At about $3.6 million a year, we are behind Oregon, Colorado and even Nebraska. Our ability to compete for visitors domestically and internationally has been drastically hampered. But it looks like all that is going to change.
   Recognizing the value of the industry in creating jobs, local taxes and community development, Gov. Gregoire has embraced tourism as a major economic development initiative.
   At her request, our Rep. Kelli Linville and Sen. Kastama of Pierce County have sponsored bi-partisan legislation that will more than double the funding for tourism efforts.
   As I write, the legislation has been passed by both houses and differences are being worked out in committee.
   So what happens when the governor signs the legislation?
   The legislation does a number of things. It would create a strong Tourism Commission located within the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development (CTED).
   The commission would be co-chaired by the CTED director and an industry member.
   There would be 19 members, including three from nonprofit marketing organizations like tourism bureaus, three hoteliers, two from the food, beverage and wine industries, two from travel and transportation, three from arts, entertainment, attractions or recreation, the chair of the state convention center board, CTED director or designee, and four legislators.
   This diverse make-up would help to ensure a cooperative approach.
   The Commission would be charged with developing and updating a six-year strategic plan for tourism development.
   Based on that plan, they would coordinate the development of a statewide tourism marketing plan adopted by March 31, 2008 and every two years thereafter.
   But plans are no good if you do not have the resources to implement them. In addition to current general funds, $4.5 million is transferred from surplus Washington State Convention and Trade Center (WSCTC) funds, money that was created by visitors but currently being channeled into the state’s general fund.
   Monies are available from the WSCTC only after certain conditions have been met, including reserves for existing debt service and future debt service related to the purchase and development of expansion projects, annual operating expenses, and annual reserves for capital maintenance and upgrades for the facility.
   Of that, $4 million will be for a matching program by the private sector. The match will be phased in so that there is no match required for these funds in 2008, but 25 percent is subject to a private sector match in 2009, 50 percent in 2010 and 100 percent thereafter.
   This encourages a public-private partnership for promoting tourism. That’s likely to produce not only a financial partnership, but a creative one, too.
   The remaining $500,000 is transferred to an account for more general purposes of the tourism program, including a tourism competitiveness grant program intended for smaller projects around the state.
   With the backing of the governor and tourism industry, this effort would have a better chance at encouraging visitors to see just what a great place Washington is. And when they come, the visitors will bring money.  A recent consulting study for CTED shows that for every dollar spent at current levels ($3.6 million) for tourism, $1.30 in state and local taxes are collected, a fair return.
   But grow that to $10 million in spending on tourism marketing, the study predicts that $3.40 would be collected in state and local taxes for every dollar spent.
   Again, that’s just the taxes that tourists pay. When you add meals, motels, shopping and all the rest, visitors to Washington are spending $13.8 billion a year and generate in excess of 46,000 jobs.
   Here in Whatcom County, visitors spend in excess of $396 million and support 6,650 jobs for our citizens.
   If these marketing efforts only bump total tourist spending by a fraction, the legislation still looks more like an investment opportunity than a spending program. Finally, our state will have the resources to compete for visitors.
   It’s a win-win solution.

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