Tourism revenue may dip locally

Officials expecting fallout from closure of statewide agency

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$400 million

Amount visitors spent in Clark County in 2010.

OLYMPIA — After legislators voted to close the state's tourism board last year, the Washington Tourism Alliance, a private membership organization, set out to fill the gap. But the alliance has met only a fraction of its fundraising goal, and those in the Vancouver tourism industry expect to see the fallout soon in the form of fewer tourists and less tourism revenue.

Suzanne Fletcher, executive director of the Washington Tourism Alliance, said the group hoped to raise $1.2 million by the end of 2012. So far, the alliance is sitting on only $400,000 in donations from corporate and individual investors.

Fletcher said she was too optimistic when setting the $1.2 million goal.

"It wasn't quite realistic," she said. "At the time, we were hopeful."

The alliance is operating on $45,000 per month, Fletcher said. The organization does not have a phys

ical office, and until March, Fletcher was the sole full-time, paid employee.

"We're operating on a shoestring," she said.

Washington is the only state in the country without state funding for its tourism industry, she said. Fletcher said the choice to close the tourism office was short-sighted.

During its last year of operation, the state tourism board was spending $1.8 million annually, Fletcher said. That amount put Washington at the bottom of the nation's totem pole of tourism spending.

A closed state tourism office isn't unheard of. Colorado closed its state tourism office in 1992, but soon reopened it when state officials realized the original decision was a mistake, Fletcher said.

"Tourism is vital," she said. "It's not an expense, it's an investment. … This has to be corrected. And the Washington Tourism Alliance is the way it will be corrected -- but we just need interim support."

Occupancy rates low

Washington tourism rates rose in 2010 and 2011, which Fletcher attributes to the economy's slow recovery from the recession. She believes the 2012 numbers will fall due to the closure of the state office.

Kimberly Bennett, president and CEO of Vancouver USA Regional Tourism Office, reported a rise in visitor spending in recent years, but she said the lack of statewide marketing will not aid in the recovery.

One of the biggest factors in tourism -- hotel occupancy rates -- is back to pre-recession rates. However, room rates are still low, she said.

Eric Walters, general manager at the Hilton Vancouver Washington, said the hotel cut room rates by as much as 15 percent during the recession.

"(Guests had) stronger negotiating power -- they would come back asking for lower rates," he said.

Though slowly improving, room rates are still down nearly 10 percent from pre-recession rates.

"It's our hope that rates will continue to increase and get back to pre-recession levels, but I don't have a prediction of when that will happen," he said.

Also, the recession could be masking the effects of the closure of the state-run tourism office, he said.

Because large group bookings made years in advance make up the "bread-and-butter" of the hotel industry, hotels may not see effects of the tourism office's closure until 2013.

"I'm more concerned long term how devastating these effects will be," he said.

Visitors spent $400 million in Clark County in 2010. The Vancouver tourism office, which is a nonprofit organization funded by lodging tax dollars, helped the state office's funding. Bennett said that number could drop off, especially if the Washington Tourism Alliance doesn't start a state-wide advertising campaign soon.

"The state umbrella has virtually disappeared," Bennett said. "It is hurting us right now. Any state that decides to get out of tourism eventually sees a decline in visitor spending. It just doesn't happen instantaneously."

Kimm Fox-Middleton, special events and volunteer manager at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, said she has not seen a decline in visitors to the tourist attraction. This could be because the fort serves multiple audiences -- community members as well as tourists, she said.

"We just had a big event this weekend," she said. "You'd never know that tourism was down."

The Mount St. Helens Silver Lake Visitor Center State Park, however, has seen a drop in paying visitors. In 2011 about 64,000 people paid to visit, down from 86,000 in 2010.

Linea Gagliano, manager of global communications for Travel Oregon, said she does not see the closure of the Washington state tourism office as a boon to Oregon's industry, but as a loss for the region.

"Any time a bureau office closes down … it's unfortunate, (considering) how much economic activity that brings not only to the state but the region," she said.

Halo effect

While Washington tourism may be lagging, the Oregon industry certainly isn't letting up on the throttle.

In the fiscal year that began in July 2009, Travel Oregon spent $5.94 million on marketing. Visitors spent $8.9 billion in calendar year 2010.

A large part of Oregon tourism's marketing focuses on bringing visitors to Portland. Though hesitant to call it a halo effect, Gagliano said that once tourists are brought to the region, they are more likely to visit Vancouver as well.

Bennett, of the Vancouver office, agreed.

"I think that we are probably more aligned with Portland's economy, and that carries over to tourism, too," she said.

As Portland continues to market and invest in regional tourism, it can only benefit Vancouver, Bennett said.