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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sorry Tacoma, travelers still just aren’t that into you as Seattle enjoys a tourist boom

Sept. 5, 2022 Updated Mon., Sept. 5, 2022 at 9:09 p.m.

By Debbie Cockrell Tacoma News Tribune

TACOMA – The ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to be felt in Tacoma and Pierce County’s tourism recovery.

By comparison, Seattle has made a stronger showing with downtown visitors and hotel occupancy.

The Downtown Seattle Association’s August recovery report said, “Downtown welcomed more than 2.9 million visitors in July – the highest monthly visitor total since the start of the pandemic.”

Hotel demand also was on the comeback as the association said, “Demand for hotel rooms downtown remained strong in July, reaching 94 percent of 2019 levels.” It hit 96% in June.

In Tacoma, tourism data presented Tuesday, Aug. 30, to the City Council’s Economic Development Committee showed that growth in terms of visitors remained off from pre-pandemic levels, though visitor numbers from surrounding towns were on the rise.

Dean Burke, president and CEO of Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier Tourism and Sports, told committee members to remember that even though amounts charged for rooms were on the rise, “inflation is not recovery.”

While the percentage of visitors traveling from up to 500 miles away is up from 2019, those coming from 500-1,000 miles away are down 23.83% and those from 1,000 or more miles away are down more than 30%.

Unique visitors to Tacoma from January through May were down 21.5% this year compared with 2019, and hotel occupancy was down 16.6% over the same period for downtown.

Downtown Tacoma has seen 65,543 unique visitors to date this year, though that number is routinely updated amid data lags.

In Pierce County, hotel occupancy January through May was down 8.5% from 2019.

In downtown Tacoma, average daily room rates in 2019 were $152.68 and dropped as low as $87.65 in 2020. So far this year, the average rate is at $156.57. For Pierce County, average daily room rates in 2019 were at $106.31, and year to date the rate is at $116.90.

During the pandemic, “downtowns anywhere suffered disproportionately in relation to the rest of the U.S.,” Burke said.

For downtown now, he noted, “We still have some rooms offline, still having staffing shortages, still having downtown issues,” with the concentration of people still “just not quite as sharp.”

For the county, he predicted hotel occupancy could reach 71% by year’s end, sitting at 69.1% now.

“We’re catching up,” he noted, with 2019’s countywide percentage of occupancy at more than 75%.

The return of conventions and the growth of sporting events were both predicted to help boost Tacoma’s turnaround. Burke noted that while meetings and conventions sector “across the country is absolutely taking the longest to recover from the pandemic, I would also say at the moment, it’s the fastest (coming back) against what the forecast was.

“We are aiming to create 105,000 new room nights next year that we will create and sell directly out of our office,” he said. Of those, “45,000 of those room nights will be in sports events, 40,000 will be leisure travelers and the balance on that 20,000 will be meetings and conventions. We will touch approximately 400 events in the next calendar year and about a million travelers directly.”

He also noted that while other markets have one strong main attraction, Tacoma reaped the benefits of Mount Rainier, downtown museums and more.

Mount Rainier in 2021 for the first time in history saw more than a million vehicles, National Park Service visitation records show, and more than 2.4 million visitors, up from more than 2.2 million in 2019.

“When people come here, they actually do a lot more things than they would do in most other markets,” Burke told the council members. “So if they’re going to Vegas or to Disney or Dallas, their experience is much narrower, much more concentrated. And here they will do so many different things and have a more balanced experience as well.”

Sea-Tac by the numbers

Another regional entity also is lagging in recovery.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport predicted in an Aug. 26 online travel update that Labor Day weekend would bring about 10% more travelers compared with last year. It noted that was still “10 percent less than pre-pandemic levels.”

European travel has recovered to pre-pandemic levels, the airport said, while “Mexico/Central America services grew 263% in July versus 2019.”

Friday, Sept. 2, was predicted to be the busiest travel day, according to Sea-Tac, “with a forecasted 155,000 passengers traveling through the airport (departing, arriving, and connecting).” The second-most busy was set to be Thursday, Sept. 1.

Monday, Sept. 5, was predicted to be the third-busiest day of the holiday weekend, with a projected 146,000 travelers coming through.

“Pre-pandemic passenger numbers reached as high as 185,000 per day during Labor Day weekend in 2019,” the airport noted.

Sea-Tac projected that 2022 will close out about 10% below 2019’s level, and next year is projected to be off 3% from pre-pandemic times. The airport said it anticipates returning to pre-pandemic traffic levels in 2024.

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