Washington’s Efforts to Rebrand as a Tourist Destination

Its biggest competitor was just around the corner: Oregon offered many of the same features as Washington—a Portland urban center, oceanfront, mountains, and wineries—and spent tens of millions of dollars annually on its tourism development and promotion program.

“They were in the minds of consumers, they were in the minds of tour operators,” Blandford said. “They were building the foundation.”

The Washington Travel Alliance and others in the travel industry have documented missed visitor opportunities and their impact on the economy and tax revenue for state legislators for several years.

Finally, in 2018, the state passed legislation that outlines a mechanism for obtaining state dollars to promote and manage tourism by allocating a portion of state sales tax dollars and matching them with dollars from the tourism sector.

Just two years later, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how important tourism is to the state’s economy, according to tourism industry officials.

Visitor spending in the state in 2020 was $13 billion, down 41 percent from a year earlier, according to Tourism Economics. Spending rose to $17.7 billion in 2021 but remained below pre-pandemic levels.

“When the world stopped, we [saw] the impact of not having anyone in your city, not having someone in your store, your restaurant,” said Nan Marchand Beauvois, senior vice president of membership and industry relations at the US Travel Association. “I think most of our major US travel destinations understand what a month without visitors is and the negative impact that has.”

Of the 40 states that reported to the US Travel Association on tourism promotion and management budgets, 29, including Washington, reported an increase from FY2020-2021 to FY2021-2022. Eight more states maintained their travel budgets, with only three states reporting cuts.

For 2022, the Washington State Tourism Authority has approximately $9 million to spend on promotion and destination management. Only $3 million of that amount came from the new budget mechanism, with the remainder coming from a biennial budgetary provision passed last year to help the tourism industry recover from the pandemic.

Washington is still catching up with neighboring states with much higher budgets. The rough estimate provided by Blandford puts Idaho at $13 million as the next lowest state. The budgets of Oregon and California are several times higher – 40 and 120 million dollars, respectively.

However, this year’s budget is a significant improvement over the dollar digging that the Washington Travel Alliance has had to do for several years.

With the one-time budget clause expiring next year, Blandford said it was critical to develop a public/private funding model to support additional funding.

Meanwhile, individual communities are finding ways to boost tourism…

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