Opinion

Federal Way must steal tourism dollars | Andy Hobbs

Washington has finally cut its own throat.

Last week, the state closed its tourism office, which costs about $2 million a year to operate. In 2010, visitors to Washington spent nearly $15 billion.

That’s right, $15 billion. Obviously, the marketing effort by the tourism office was successful.

According to a Reuters report, half of all states are shrinking their tourism budgets, while others are increasing tourism spending. Even as Washington shaves expenses in order to fund core services like education and health care, tourism promotion is not entirely lost. The non-profit Washington Tourism Alliance is working to raise money for marketing the state toward visitors.

With its breathtaking scenery and natural attractions, can Washington rely on its charm and reputation to keep the tourism dollars flowing? Before answering that question, consider a cautionary tale from Colorado.

A spokesman for Colorado’s tourism office, which closed from 1993 to 2000, said his state lost one-third of overnight visitors during that time. He told Reuters the closure led to an “economic travesty” for Colorado, adding that Washington’s decision to close its tourism office is foolish.

Logic dictates that the greater an investment, the greater the rewards. How will Washington invest in visitors?

Recession-scarred Michigan is spending nearly $25 million this year in promoting the state to visitors. Even costly California is spending money on marketing its assets.

For a local example of the tourism cash cow, Federal Way can look to its own King County Aquatic Center. Just last month, the world’s largest synchronized swim meet spent eight days in Federal Way. The event generated an estimated $1.3 million for the city’s economy as visitors spent money at Federal Way’s hotels, restaurants and businesses. Expect more of the same when the U.S. Olympic Diving Trials arrive next year.

The city also taps tourism dollars with the sand sculpting competition, which returns next month, along with world-class rhododendron and bonsai gardens on the Weyerhaeuser campus. Don’t forget about Wild Waves Theme Park, the largest of its kind in the region.

Down the road, a civic center in the downtown core will become a destination for regional visitors — that is, if Federal Way sinks money into promoting events at the civic center.

King County alone brings in $5.4 billion from tourism a year, according to Crosscut.com. That money is ripe for the taking. With its close proximity to Seattle, Federal Way can certainly steal a few tourists by offering more reasons for them to drive south for the day. It all adds up, sort of like thinking in terms of earning four quarters instead of one dollar.

It falls on the shoulders of each county and city to lure visitors. If Federal Way wants to be a major player in King County’s tourism bounty, the city must invest to win.

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