Wash. lawmakers consider bill to bolster state tourism

Wash. lawmakers consider bill to bolster state tourism
The reception for lawmakers will be at a house across the street from the Capitol campus in Olympia.
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - After eliminating the state tourism office in 2011, Washington lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow those in the private sector to pick up the slack.

The request comes as the state's share of tourists is declining, tourism industry officials say.

"Our concern is that as we look at annual numbers, we are continuing to lose market share," said Louise Stanton-Masten, president of the Washington Tourism Alliance, which formed after the state tourism office closed.

Washington is the only state without a state-funded tourism office. In the surrounding states and Canada, from $7 million to upward of $60 million a year is spent marketing to visitors.

Stanton-Masten says Washington can't adequately compete on its current budget of nearly $1 million a year made up of short-term funding from the Legislature and the dues of about 440 alliance members across the state. With its budget, the organization has been able to revamp the Experience Washington travel website and produce the official state visitor guide.

"We've been keeping the lights on," she said.

According to David Blandford of Visit Seattle, everyone across Washington in the tourism industry has been putting in extra effort since the state office closed.

"We've all been working very hard to make sure Washington stays in the mind of travelers, which is hard to do with little money," Blandford said.

Under House Bill 2229, money to support tourism marketing and promotion throughout the state would come from the tourism industry in five key areas: lodging; food service; attractions and entertainment; retail; and transportation.

"It goes back to our philosophy that the state closed the tourism office, and we want to take care of ourselves," Stanton-Masten said.

Rep. Jeff Morris sponsored the bill, which passed the House on an 88-8 vote and is making its way through the Senate. The Mount Vernon Democrat said the measure essentially sets up a money collection process for the Washington Tourism Alliance.

If it's approved, tourism-related businesses could start paying into an account for marketing in the second half of 2015.

Tourism is one of the state's largest industries, employing nearly 155,000 people, according to the Washington Tourism Alliance. The group's preliminary numbers from 2012 to 2013 indicate that while tourism improved slightly in 2013, the rate of growth has slowed.

When Washington had a state tourism office, its budget was approximately $3.8 million in its final two years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Under the measure, the goal would be to collect approximately $7.5 million in the first year to be more in line with lower tourism budgets in nearby states.

Lodging and food service businesses would contribute the highest share under the proposal, at $2.4 million and $2.1 million respectively. Retail business would contribute just over $1.4 million; attractions and entertainment would give $975,000; and transportation would give $600,000.

Stanton-Masten said the bill has had input and support from tourism professionals.

Tacoma restaurant owner Monique Trudnowski was one of the first people involved with the tourism alliance. When she and her husband opened the Adriatic Grill in 2008, she said she realized the importance of tourism and partnering with hotels to drive her business.

"When people come to stay, they have to eat," Trudnowski said. "That really got me involved."

She said the bill is important because it will allow the alliance to work with the Revenue Department to figure out how to assess businesses without putting too much of a burden on them.

"I think it's going to be a win-win situation," Trudnowski said.