Washington’s efforts to rebrand as a tourist destination

 Thursday, June 30, 2022 

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While Albert Nuñez was in a Dallas-area hospital fighting COVID-19 in late 2020, his family helped him remain positive by bringing photos from hikes and other outings in Seattle and around Washington state.

Nuñez had moved back to his native Dallas in 2018 after 15 years living in Seattle.

It would take six months — including a month at the hospital — for Nuñez to fully recover from COVID-19. During that time he decided that when he could, he would hike around Washington again.  Just to see the nature again, he said.

With travel restricted during the pandemic, tourism in Washington, as in the rest of the U.S., took a significant hit and led the state’s economy and tax coffers to lose billions.

But the pandemic also gave many, like Nuñez, a renewed appreciation for the value of travel.

People started understanding the regenerative, the therapeutic value, said Dipra Jha, assistant director of the School of Hospitality Business Management at Washington State University.

This pent-up demand provides a prime opportunity for Washington’s tourism industry. And unlike a decade ago, this year the state has a multimillion-dollar statewide tourism budget.

Tourism officials hope to lure back return visitors like Nuñez, as well as those who had never considered visiting the state in the first place.

When the state’s tourism office closed and tourism promotion dollars dried up more than a decade ago, the state had a much harder time getting into the consciousness of prospective tourists in the U.S. and abroad.

While people continued to visit Washington – including millions leaving Seattle on cruises to Alaska – the lack of a concerted promotion effort heavily limited its reach to new visitors, said Jha.

He is also a board member for State of Washington Tourism, a nonprofit contracted to lead the state’s destination marketing and management efforts.

People do not visit places they do not know about, he said. The other piece is they don’t come unless they’re invited.

Out of Market

When Washington closed its tourism office in 2011, tourism industry officials could quickly point to a case study of the consequences of such a decision.

In 2006, Longwoods International, a travel consulting firm with locations in the U.S. and Canada, looked into the impact of Colorado’s decision in 1993 to eliminate its travel budget, which was $12 million at the time.

The impacts were massive: a 30% loss in U.S. traveller market share, and visitor spending losses of $1.4 billion annually initially, rising to $2.4 billion annually by the late 1990s. 

Colorado’s funding was restored in 2000, and legislation a few years later brought the budget back up to $19 million, but the Longwoods study emphasized the state would feel the harmful effects for years to come.

The study ends with “Think Twice Before Slashing Your Marketing Budget. Don’t Be The Next Colorado.”

The Washington Tourism Alliance and others in the tourism industry documented lost opportunities to attract visitors — and their impact on the economy and tax revenues for state legislators for several years.

Finally in 2018 the state passed legislation outlining a mechanism to generate state tourism promotion and management dollars by earmarking a portion of state sales tax dollars and matching them with dollars from the tourism sector.

Just two years later, the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated how important tourism was to the state’s economy, tourism industry officials said.

According to figures from Tourism Economics, visitor spending in the state was $13 billion in 2020, a 41 percent drop from just a year earlier.

Spending increased in 2021 to $17.7 billion but remained below pre-pandemic levels.

When the world stood still, we [saw] the impact of not having anyone in your city, not having anyone in your store, your restaurant, said Nan Marchand Beauvois, senior vice president of membership and industry relations for the U.S. Travel Association.

Of 40 states that reported tourism promotion and management budgets to the U.S. Travel Association, 29, including Washington, reported an increase from the 2020-2021 to the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

An additional eight states maintained their tourism budgets, and just three states reported a decrease.

For 2022, State of Washington Tourism has roughly $9 million to spend on destination promotion and management.

Just $3 million of that came from the new budget mechanism, with the remainder from a biennium budget proviso passed last year to help the tourism industry recover from the pandemic.

Washington is still catching up with neighboring states with much higher budgets. According to rough estimates provided by Blandford, the next lowest state is Idaho, with $13 million.

Oregon and California’s budgets are several times higher at $40 million and $120 million, respectively.

Still, this year’s budget is a considerable improvement over having to scrape for dollars, which the Washington Tourism Alliance had to do for several years.

With the one-time budget proviso to expire next year, Blandford said it will be crucial to evolve the public/private funding model to sustain additional funding.

Meanwhile, individual communities are finding ways to generate new tourism promotion dollars.

The Seattle City Council voted to double the city’s hotel fee to increase city’s marketing budget and compete with better-funded destinations like Portland.

The immersive travel experience

The Washington Tourism Alliance was several months into building back that program when the pandemic hit. Much of its planned tourism promotion and management strategy had to be put on hold.

Still, the organization moved forward on projects that could continue during the pandemic, such as website redesign and assisting tourism-related businesses through various challenges, such as prolonged closures and health and safety policies.

In January the organization launched its “State of Washington” destination brand.

Washington Tourism Alliance also changed its name to State of Washington Tourism to reflect the new brand. As part of the rebranding, the organization launched a new website and visitor’s guide.

To draw these visitors, it used photos of people enjoying an array of experiences: enjoying local foods in the city, touring an estate vineyard or hiking in the forest.

A Washington map posted on the State of Washington website, for example, isn’t showing cities and highways but notes activities located in different parts of the state, such as “Trails and Lakes,” “Volcanoes,” and “Wine Country.”

The brand aims to encourage visitors to dive into various experiences that the organization describes as “authentic” and “transformative.” 

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