BUSINESS VIEW: Private sector is stepping up for tourism

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. That’s particularly true in these tough economic times, as “business as usual” no longer works.

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. That’s particularly true in these tough economic times, as “business as usual” no longer works.

As governors and state lawmakers across our nation deal with record budget deficits, tourism promotion is being slashed. Many in the travel industry realize that if colorful travel brochures and television commercials are to continue, they will have to be privately funded.

For example, in Texas, tourism is the second largest industry, employing 525,000 people and bringing in $55 billion per year. Still, lawmakers there propose to reduce the state’s $30 million tourism budget to $5 million to keep a skeletal program going. They may be forced to eliminate travel promotion completely before the legislature adjourns.

Elected officials in the Lone Star State are worried about wiping out tourism expenditures all together. In 1993, for example, Colorado lawmakers eliminated its promotion budget, and visitors to that state dropped by one-third within two years. The annual revenue loss was well over $2 billion and Colorado dropped from first place in summer resort states to 17th. When funding was restored, it took the state seven years to rebound.

Unfortunately, due to our state’s budget deficit, Washington’s Tourism Department and its related marketing efforts are on the chopping block. That’s not surprising, when you consider that Gov. Chris Gregoire and legislators are struggling to find money for health care, education and social services.

The governor’s proposed 2011-13 biennial budget calls for the closure of the Washington State Tourism office by June 30, 2011. House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, quickly released a supplemental budget which eliminates funding for activities to promote tourism effective March 1, 2011 – three months earlier than anticipated.

So, public tourism dollars are all but gone, leaving those who depend on tourism between a rock and a hard spot.

Realizing that tourism is too important not to fund, there is an effort to privately fund tourism promotion in our state.

One of the leaders in that effort is George Schweitzer, chief operating officer of the Red Lion Hotels, who serves on the Washington State Tourism Commission. He and others are creating a tourism alliance of all the industries that directly benefit from tourism. They plan to ask the alliance members to privately fund tourism promotions to keep travelers coming to our state.

Washington benefits greatly from tourism, but the state has never stepped forward like Texas, California, Alaska and even my home state of Montana. Lawmakers in Montana, a state with one-eighth the population of Washington, allocate eight to 10 times more money for tourism than Washington.

In 2010, travelers to Washington spent more than $15 billion in the state. And despite the recession, a state Department of Commerce study shows that the number of visitors – and the amount they spent – increased 7.4 percent over 2009, making 2010 the second best year on record in Washington.

Local and state tax coffers benefit as well: travel spending generated nearly $1 billion in local and state tax revenue. In fact, without visitors from outside the state, each Washington household would need to pay an additional $240 in taxes to generate the same amount of revenue. Schweitzer points out that, while the travel industry supports some 144,000 jobs in the state, 85 percent of tourism-related businesses have fewer than 50 employees.

Tourism is important to our state’s economy, too important to be allowed to wither because of budget cuts, as happened in Colorado.

Employers have often called on government to do things differently, to think outside the box. It’s only fair that the private sector does the same.

Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.

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