By Don C. Brunell, Guest Columnist
Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. That’s particularly true in difficult times, when “business as usual” no longer works.
As our national deficit approaches $22 trillion ($180,000 per taxpayer) and state and local governments deal with skyrocketing costs for health care, pensions, education and public safety, we will have to do things differently, or, in some instances, not at all. One way is to develop private-public partnerships to share costs and coordinate programs.
Take tourism, for example.
Over the years, our funding of state tourism promotion has been token at best, but mostly non-existent. Historically, other priorities gobbled up state revenues, and when it came time to balance the budget, travel promotion got axed. Lawmakers had no choice because, unlike Congress, revenues must cover expenses.
While Washington was noticeably missing in television markets, California, Oregon, Montana and British Columbia have peppered the airwaves with enticing commercials.
Our neighboring states invest heavily to attract travelers and their investments are paying off. For example, the Montana legislature appropriated $19 million for travel promotion in 2017. Subsequently, the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation found that state received $3.5 billion in return.
In 2016-17, while Washington’s legislature appropriated no money, neighboring states invested — from California’s $117 million to Idaho’s $5 million. Oregon spent $32 million. Nationally, Hawaii and Florida budgeted $87 million each, and Texas spent $46 million.
Realizing the fight for appropriations was a losing battle, the state tourism office closed in 2011. It became clear that a new approach involving the private sector was necessary.
The Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA) was formed as a public-private partnership. Two years ago, Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation creating a Tourism Marketing Authority. The Authority is now eligible for up to $4.5 million a year in state funds, as long as the private sector matches $2 for every $1 of tax money. That fund allows the WTA to develop a comprehensive strategy and market events and attractions domestically and internationally.
Travel and tourism are among the largest industries in the United States. According to Statistics Portal’s website, travel and tourism contributed $1.5 trillion to our gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015 and provided 5.5 million jobs. The industry is projected to grow and generate $2.6 trillion by 2027.
Tourism is Washington’s fourth-largest industry, generating $21.4 billion in annual spending and contributing $1.8 billion in state and local taxes, according to WTA. For every $1 spent of tourism marketing, between $2.50 and $20 in tax revenue is collected. Every county in our state benefits from leisure travel. Statewide, 182,700 workers are employed in tourism-related pursuits.
The new travel alliance needs to have flexibility to target promotional spending. Some sectors are doing fine on their own. One is vacationing, onboard cruise ships.
Since 2000, Seattle has grown to become the top West Coast cruise port with 216 vessels and 1.1 million passengers last year. The Port of Seattle estimated cruise ships generate over $500 million a year and employ 4,000 workers. According to Statistics Portal, more than 30 percent of travelers worldwide go on cruises.
There are parts of rural Washington that can benefit from statewide tourism promotion — especially places with fresh and saltwater beaches. Statistics Portal found that more than half of vacationers head to the water’s edge.
As more people have money and time to travel, Washington must invest and tell potential visitors what makes our diverse state unique and beautiful. The bottom line is our opportunities to capture a much bigger share of travel dollars are much better if we pony up now to promote our state as “the place to visit.”
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, columnist and recently retired president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization. Brunell lives in Vancouver, and can be contacted via email at theBrunells@msn.com.