In Our View: Tourism — An Easy Sell

State closes travel-promotion department, but private sources are poised to step up

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Because Washington state boasts many of America’s most beautiful natural treasures and a collective attitude that’s effusively hospitable, it could be argued that we don’t need a state tourism department.

We’re about to find out if that’s true.

As of Friday, Washington became the only state to close its official tourism agency and cut all state funding for self-promotion.

Not only will our wonderful state survive, we’re embarking on a whole new system of privately funded tourism promotion, and for taxpayers in an economic crisis, that could be a great conversion.

Make no mistake, tourism matters. Last year, out-of-staters dropped a cool $15.2 billion in our state, not too shabby as Americans struggle to escape the Great Recession. But we wonder how much of that huge amount would’ve been spent here even if the visitors had not been begged by a state-funded agency to come.

Still, many people might be concerned that we’re the only state to try cold-turkey defunding. Look at it from the perspective of Mike Hewitt, who served for years on the state tourism commission and is more popularly known as a Republican state senator from Walla Walla.

“When you’re taking kids off health care and raising tuition, you have to make some tough decisions,” he correctly noted recently.

And that’s why the $2 million that the state originally targeted for tourism-promotion expenses in the coming fiscal year has been eliminated. In previous years, the state had dedicated as much as $7 million to that office.

Again, though, visiting Washington state is something that doesn’t require a heavy sales pitch. Most rational people already know the innumerable benefits. And when statistics from other states are examined, eliminating state-funded tourism promotion is not all that shocking. California already does almost the same thing; the annual budget there for travel promotion is about $50 million, but only about $200,000 comes from the state. The rest comes from assessments paid by hotels, restaurants, rental car companies and other businesses related to tourism.

Hawaii — like Washington, an easy sell for tourism — is looking at shifting tourism-promotion money to social needs. New York cut travel advertising by 60 percent. In Arizona, the reduction is 40 percent.

Other states have taken the opposite approach. State-subsidized travel promotion is up considerably in Alaska, Louisiana and Michigan. No offense to Michiganders, but we wonder if that $25 million — including $11 million on a “Pure Michigan” campaign — could be better spent elsewhere.

We might be alarmed about this change in Washington if anyone could prove the money cannot be found elsewhere. In fact, the opposite is true. California proves that point, and the seeds of privately funded travel marketing have been planted in Washington. Various components of our state’s tourism industry already have raised $300,000 to sustain and take over some of the state’s assets such as the tourism website.

Kim Bennett, chief executive officer of the Vancouver Regional Tourism Office in Southwest Washington, was quoted in a recent Columbian story: “While we’re disappointed the state tourism office is closing, we’re also looking at the opportunity to restructure the state tourism efforts into the hands of the private sector.”

Great. And a new private committee called Washington Tourism Alliance is doing precisely that. We think they’ll be successful, perhaps even more than previous state-funded efforts.

Owners of hotels, restaurants, ports and other travel-related industries should recognize this opportunity to step up and help accelerate the shift to privately funded tourism promotion.