Tourism industry a key player in economic recovery


I’ll admit — my crystal ball is a little foggy. Otherwise I might have purchased a few shares of stock in a little known start up tech firm or coffee company a few decades ago. So while I am not purporting to predict the future, I am willing to share a few facts and figures that highlight the positive role of tourism in economically volatile times.

In 2007, the Bellingham / Whatcom County tourism industry generated $453.7 million in direct visitor spending — a $31 million increase over the previous year. Visitors to Whatcom County also contributed $7.1 million in city and county taxes during the same time period. Travel-related jobs also account for nearly 6 percent of all local employment.

As these numbers underscore, tourism represents a crucial component of our local economy. And, like most industry sectors, tourism can be vulnerable to uncertain economic climates. Tourism has traditionally defied moderate shifts, earning the distinction of being a “recession resistant” industry. However, according to a recent travelhorizons survey (conducted the week of Oct. 13, 2008) recent fluctuations of the stock market are starting to affect the leisure travel plans and habits of Americans.

The survey revealed that 71 percent of active leisure travelers intend to take an overnight trip of 50 miles or more from home during the next six months. This percentage is identical to that recorded in travelhorizons one year ago – which reinforces the perception among Americans that travel is a non-negotiable right despite turbulence in the financial markets.

It’s not the philosophy of travel that’s changing to reflect the times, it’s the practice itself.

Consumers are likely to plan and purchase leisure trips differently with the pursuit of a “good value” as the primary reason why. Three-quarters of those surveyed “expect to book a packaged vacation to save money” and six out of ten “plan to comparison shop for prices and rates specifically on the Internet.” Seven out of ten “plan to stay fewer nights” and a comparable percentage expects to “spend less on food, beverages and entertainment” when traveling.

Interestingly, not all respondents expect to travel differently. A full one out of five expect to stay more nights, and nearly one out of six expects to spend more money overall. As Dr. Peter Yesawich, Chairman of Ypartnership who co-authors the survey, stated, “American travelers are trading down, but not out.”

The outlook for business travel is more challenging, with a 2.7 percent decline forecasted for 2009 according to the Travel Industry Association’s (TIA) annual travel forecast. Business, meeting and convention travel volume is expected to begin to recover in 2010 (+2 percent).

There are several bright spots on the travel industry horizon. “Rubber tire” destinations, those that rely more on auto-based transportation, are expected to remain stronger in both leisure and business markets. Destinations that offer cost-effective accommodations and amenities are expected to outperform among price-conscious consumers. And destinations that support a growing desire among travelers to experience authenticity and sustainable tourism options will have a competitive edge.

All of which bodes well for Whatcom County tourism.

“Consumers are responding as we might expect during an economic slowdown,” said Dr. Suzanne Cook, Senior VP of Research for the Travel Industry Association. “But travel should not simply be viewed as an economic indicator; it should be seen as a part of the solution to economic woes. There’s no doubt that if we can spur travel, we can help to turn the economy around.”

Tourism marketing is a competitive business in the best of economies. Given the volatility of our current environment, the board of directors and staff at Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism are committed to continued development and implementation of tourism marketing activities that are extremely focused, strategic and targeted in order to attract immediate attention and stimulate immediate response from the traveling public.


Loni Rahm is president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, a nonprofit destination marketing organization dedicated to the enhancement of the local economy through the tourism sector. She encourages you to utilize the vast information resources available at the BWCT Visitor Information Center at 904 Potter St. and open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.


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