Yakima Harold-Republic – Guest editorial: Tourism means business; time for state to get busy again

Posted on February 22, 2015
John Cooper

Here are a few facts about Washington that not everyone knows:

  • Tourism is the fourth-largest industry in our state.
  • Washington is the only state in the U.S. that does not have a robust tourism promotion program.
  • Washington’s share of tourism growth has been below the national average for the past four years. We’ve been losing share of the tourism pie to other states since our Legislature closed the state tourism office in 2011.

Today, we are poised to fire up this economic engine again. A bill co-sponsored by Rep. Norm Johnson of Yakima (House Bill 1938) plus companion Senate Bill 5916 have been introduced in the Legislature that would allow our state to begin telling its story to travelers across the U.S., Canada and overseas.

When a visitor comes to Washington, we’re hosting a very special guest. Why? Because when out-of-state travelers spend money on a hotel room, in a restaurant, a shop, gas station or other businesses, they not only help that business, they pay taxes that benefit Washingtonians. In fact, visitor spending in Washington generates $400 in tax revenue for each Washington household: That’s a $400 reduction in annual household taxes for each of our families.

This is why every state — except Washington — has a sustainable funding mechanism to support a statewide tourism effort to attract visitors. Visitor spending and the taxes they pay while visiting are revenues we depend upon. Without visitors, our community would have less retail, fewer restaurants, fewer events and less money to support important community projects. Visitors expand our economy and improve our quality of life.

In 2013 (the latest year with economic data available), tourists spent $17.6 billion in Washington. They contributed $1.1 billion in state and local taxes. Those are big numbers, but closer analysis shows they aren’t where they should be. Statewide tourism spending — and, therefore, tax revenue and job growth — slowed in 2013. It’s expected that our upcoming data will show even less growth for 2014 on a statewide basis. This slower pace has been happening since that dark day in 2011 when the state tourism office was eliminated.

Here in Yakima County, visitors spend $359 million annually. They support 3,560 jobs in locally owned small businesses. Tourists provide our community with more than $24 million in sales taxes that support services we all enjoy. While the Yakima Valley tourism industry has done well the last few years, imagine how much stronger our economy would be if more visitors came to Washington to spend their money. With a solid state effort, we can reach new markets and attract those visitors.

There is definitely light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s coming into view quickly. The Washington Tourism Alliance is making a push toward re-establishing a robust statewide tourism marketing program. Only this time, it will be different from past state tourism efforts and unlike any in the rest of the country. Washington tourism industry businesses will support the new nonprofit, private tourism organization. All the funding will be generated by the tourism industry itself through assessments and voluntary contributions.

We need to take this significant and crucial step and pass this legislation. I am confident that by telling our story again, we’ll be able to increase travel to our state. As a result, visitor spending will increase, jobs will grow and tax revenues will expand. We’ll gain greater attention from businesses considering relocation and we’ll build our quality of life. It makes great business sense to promote to the world one of our greatest assets: the state of Washington.

John Cooper is president and CEO of Yakima Valley Tourism and a board member of the Washington Tourism Alliance