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How Spokane tourism grew into a $1.5 billion industry in 2023

By Tod Stephens, The Spokesman-Review
Published: May 26, 2024, 6:02am

SPOKANE — Since earthlings were confined to their homes during the coronavirus pandemic, Spokane county tourism has never been better.

In 2023, about 9.9 million tourists visited Spokane County — more than any year since 2019 — which resulted in around $1.5 billion in revenue.

“It starts with a visit,” said Rose Noble, Visit Spokane president and CEO. “Then they’re say, ‘I could see myself living in Spokane.’ Then they buy a house and get a job or start businesses, so it’s all a cycle.”

Noble described the importance of tourism at an event held by Visit Spokane, a marketing nonprofit for the Spokane region.

There, she announced figures her organization compiled from a report by Oxford Economics, an economic advisory arm of Oxford University.

The study found that tourists spent about $360 million on food and beverages in Spokane last year and another $312 million on retail.

But the largest direct contributor to tourism revenue came from dollars spent on room accommodations at the area’s hotels. According to the Oxford data, around $450 million was spent on accommodation in Spokane County last year — a 1% increase over 2022.

Noble gave credit to partner organizations, the Public Facilities District and Spokane Sports. Together, the groups procure and host the area’s largest events.

Dan Zimmerer, president of the hotel division for Ruby Hospitality, said earlier this year that the single most impactful sporting event Spokane will host is the Pacific Northwest Qualifier. Also known simply as “PNQ,” the volleyball tournament welcomed some 800 teams, according to the Public Facilities District.

“It’s proven that PNQ is the largest-room night contributor in Spokane all year,” he said. “There’s a lot of three- or four-night stays, and it spans from (Eastern Washington University), downtown to the Hub in Liberty Lake, so it fills hotels in every part of the city. It’s incredible.”

Mayor Lisa Brown made a showing at the event and championed the tourism industry by formally proclaiming May 19-25 as National Travel and Tourism week in Spokane.

Her aim was to encourage residents of Spokane to recognize the critical role tourism plays in a growing economy.

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“Walking to professional soccer games from my home and through the park to celebrate Expo ‘74,” Brown said. “I really feel like this is an inflection point for our city in our region.”

Bringing outsiders to Spokane is a driving force for growth that benefits jurisdictions beyond city lines, according to Brown.

“(Tourists) don’t necessarily see the boundaries between the city, Spokane Valley, the county and Coeur d’Alene — they get the whole region,” she said. “We all get the economic opportunities that I know we all want to build.”

According to Brown, she is living proof of the fruits of tourism.

“I’m really here as a result of a tourism investment,” she said. “I came with a boyfriend, and we were going to be here three months, max. One thing led to another, we both got jobs and, just like Rose said, we built our lives here and our families here.”

With a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Colorado, Boulder, Brown said she knows the importance of growing the tourism industry in Spokane.

“I love talking about the visitor economy, because when tourists come to town, they don’t just bring their luggage,” she said. “They bring a lot of love in the form of a multiplier effect to our economy.”

The mayor said she plans to contribute by a project that she teased at the event. She claimed her administration is developing a lodging tax advisory committee.

Tourists are charged a lodging tax when they rent accommodations in Spokane.

That money is then earmarked for the promotion of tourism.

“We still need to talk a little bit about the name of it, but a rebranding is happening,” she said. “We’ll be announcing within the next week, and it’s going to make further investments in our tourism and culture and community economy.”

Noble will chair the new committee, which has been dormant for three years, she said.

“It’s going to be really cool,” she said. “So I’ll say this as a cliffhanger: It’s coming.”

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