OLYMPIA – Lawmakers are trying to put Washington state back on the map when it comes to tourism.
After eliminating the state tourism office in 2011, the Legislature is considering creating a Washington Tourism Marketing Authority to fund and manage resources throughout the state.
The authority, made up of tourism industry officials and legislators, is expected to deposit $5 million into its account every two-year state budget cycle by diverting 0.1 percent of retail taxes from lodging, rental cars and restaurants. The measure would also allow the private sector to match some of the funding, which would ultimately bring in a total of up to $15 million per biennium to be spent on tourism across the entire state.
Washington is the only state without a state-funded tourism office, according to the Washington Tourism Alliance, a non-profit agency that has picked up from where the original program left off.
“We’ve simply kept the lights on over the past five years,” said David Blandford of the WTA.
Blandford said the agency has been maintaining the website and taking calls but doesn’t have the funds other states do to advertise and promote tourism across the entire state.
Nearby states such as Oregon, Montana and California are spending $5 million to upward of $120 million a year to attract visitors, Blandford said. He said other states like Idaho are out-spending Washington by several millions of dollars.
Rep. Cary Condotta, the sponsor of House Bill 1123, says “it’s time for the state to keep up.”
“If I didn’t think it was going to return two, three or four times as much, I wouldn’t put it out there,” said Condotta, a Republican from Wenatachee. “But I am more than convinced based on the data that it is the best return that we can get.”
Since 2011, state agencies such as the WTA, the Port of Seattle and others have relied on private funding from donations, small grants and membership fees.
Even without a tourism office, Washington remains the fourth largest industry for tourism, said Cheryl Kilday, president and chief executive officer of Visit Spokane and chairwoman of the board of the WTA.
“We’ve lost opportunities to participate both domestically and internationally with other programs because we don’t have the money at the state level and people to coordinate it,” she said.
The rural communities and counties have experienced the most neglect, Kilday said.
“Tourism doesn’t always affect every place in Washington evenly,” she said. “The program was designed to connect all of the communities, large and small, rural and urban.”
Sen. Dean Takko, a Democrat from Longview who is the sponsor of Senate Bill 5251, said he wants to make sure places like Long Beach and other smaller or more rural districts don’t get overlooked.
“There’s natural beauty all across the state, not just in Seattle, but places like the Olympic Peninsula, the ocean and even Eastern Washington has some interesting hiking trails,” Takko said. “We want to get people to the state.”
A public hearing for Takko’s bill is scheduled Thursday morning; the House bill had a public hearing last month.