When I moved to Seattle 22 years ago, I remember thinking I had never lived in a city where so many people had moved here not for a job, but for a sense of place. I had relocated from St. Louis, and I love St. Louis. But trust me: No one moves to St. Louis because it is geographically blessed, whereas hordes will move to Seattle precisely for that reason. Even during the 1990-91 recession, I kept encountering people who had moved here for the hiking, the climbing, the sailing. They sang the praises of the scenery, the temperate climate. They figured the career thing would eventually take care of itself. They wanted to live here because the place is so incredibly special.
A lot of people who don’t live here also think Seattle is pretty special. We know this because they pump $16.4 billion a year into the state’s economy and assure the employment of people who make $4.5 billion in wages.
How long that attraction continues will have a lot to do with how well we continue to promote Washington tourism. The state of Washington right now isn’t spending a penny on tourism promotion. A revenue-strapped Legislature shut down the state tourism office last year and eliminated its $1.8 million budget.
A makeshift private organization called the Washington Tourism Alliance is now the de facto promoter of state tourism. People who work in tourism created it, knowing that while Washington will always remain an attractive vacation option, it’s hard to compete with other inviting places that pump tens of millions of dollars a year into promoting their attractions. The thinking is that once we’re out of sight, we’ll quickly be out of mind.
At a public forum on travel and tourism recently, the sponsor of the event—a major bank—declared it had become the first financial institution in Washington state to join the Washington Tourism Alliance.
The announcement did not lead the 11 o’clock news. But it opened my eyes. “The health of the tourism industry does not just affect hotels and restaurants,” said KeyBank executive John Roehm. “The hundreds of attractions, retail and hospitality businesses, and the 160,000 people employed in this sector are our bank customers. They open checking accounts, they pay mortgages and they make investments. It is in our interest to ensure the industry survives and grows.”
That was my “well, duh!” moment. For some reason, we who live in this geographically blessed place don’t seem to think of tourism as an industry, at least not in the same way we think about airplane manufacturing, software development or even online retail. There’s no one going to a factory or an office building to “make” something. We seem to think it just happens. But if we take it for granted, it will go away.
In 1993, during an anti-taxation frenzy, Colorado voters apparently thought the same thing. They cut the state’s travel-promotion budget from $12 million to zero. Colorado’s share of the domestic travel market plunged from 2.7 percent to 1.8 percent. State funding returned about seven years later, but it took 19 years for Colorado to get back to the market share it had enjoyed in 1993.
In Washington state, the Alliance realizes it cannot continue relying on the kindness of strangers. Its ultimate goal is to persuade the Legislature to devise a promotion model that keeps travel and tourism a viable industry in Washington state. But until that happens, you may want to consider ponying up for a membership in the Alliance. After all, this is a special place. But, as Colorado quickly discovered, it’s not that special when an entire industry dries up.
JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Full disclosure: His wife is employed by KeyBank.