The tourists, and their money, are back in Seattle
Tourism supports 51,000 jobs in King County, according to one study. Seattle is one of the top 25 tourism markets in the country.
Special to The Seattle Times
This is the time of year when I am rarely out on a sidewalk downtown without a tourist asking for directions.
I'm happy to give them, and as he or she walks away I think, "I get to live here!" That's not just Seattle Smug. I've lived in cities all over the country, including San Diego and Denver. Nothing tops this one.
These encounters are a reminder, too, that although the Puget Sound region is known for software and airplanes, tourism is big business. The good news is that it is recovering from the recession.
So far this year, most of the sector's measures are back to pre-recession levels. The downturn hit tourism late here, as it did other industries, but the damage was significant. Hotels, restaurants and destinations saw business fall between 18 percent and 20 percent in 2009.
Now, said Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau, "We have rebounded incredibly strongly."
Through May, occupancy growth in the major core hotels was up 6 percent, the strongest on the West Coast.
Conventions are up, too, starting in January with 8,000 members of the Modern Language Association at the Washington State Convention Center.
And all this was before the sweet season of sunny, temperate days while most of the rest of the country is broiling.
Last year, Seattle saw 9.9 million visitors spending $5.9 billion, according to a report prepared for the bureau by Dean Runyan Associates. That represented a 6.6 percent increase over 2010.
Tourism supports 51,000 jobs in King County, and Seattle is one of the top 25 tourism markets in the country.
Statewide, tourism ranks fourth as an industry, behind software, aerospace and agriculture and food, with 150,000 jobs and $16.4 billion in direct spending by visitors.
When I asked Norwalk about the reasons for the rebound, he pointed to an improving economy and the effects of a $2.5 million advertising campaign funded by the hotel-bed tax for the Seattle Tourism Improvement Area.
"This was the first time we had leisure promotion dollars to spend," he said. "The campaign was geared to Vancouver, B.C., Portland and San Francisco, focusing on arts and culture, food and wine, and attractions."
One initiative is a social-media campaign called 2 Days in Seattle, complete with Twitter hashtag (#2DaysInSeattle). The bureau paid for some top social-media mavens — as measured by the site Klout, which ranks online influence — to visit and tweet and otherwise tell the blogosphere about their experiences.
All this is helpful considering that last year Washington became the only state to close its statewide tourism office and offer no money for advertising.
Meanwhile, it's difficult to go around the region without seeing promotions for Montana. British Columbia spends $60 million a year on tourism promotion. California, although facing huge budget issues, commits $55 million. Portland is due to begin a campaign aimed at taking business from Seattle. Washington state does nothing.
"We can't allow that to happen for very long. It's an enormous problem," Norwalk said.
States and even the federal government are discovering that tourism represents a valuable export. That seems counterintuitive because people are coming here. But, as with any export, they are leaving their money here.
Tourism is a $1.8 trillion industry in the United States, but after Sept. 11 and, in part because of more onerous entry requirements here and better promotion abroad, many international travelers have been going elsewhere. The nation of the Grand Canyon, Times Square, the National Mall, Las Vegas and Disneyland has been losing out.
A 2010 report by the U.S. Travel Association, an industry group, and Oxford Economics, found that the decline in international travel cost $500 billion in lost spending and 440,000 jobs from 2000 through 2009.
One result is Brand USA, a public-private partnership to promote the country to international visitors.
Its "Land of Dreams" campaign includes an advertisement with scenes of the country and music by Roseanne Cash powerful enough to move even a curmudgeon. (You can find it on YouTube.)
Back home, Norwalk outlines other challenges. Average room rates are still below where they stood in the local industry's peak year of 2007. And while we don't have troubles of the magnitude of New York City before Rudy Giuliani, aggressive panhandling and drug dealing are a problem.
"It surprises and frightens a lot of visitors and it's an issue that's not getting better."
Another nasty surprise would be if the slowing economy spoils the so-far happy 2012 for the tourism industry. It might not. This is a two-track recovery, with many doing well or at least holding their own, while others continue to suffer from the jobs crisis and financial ruin.
"Our business is cyclical," Norwalk said. "Right now were seeing growth. We can't ever take it for granted."
You may reach Jon Talton at email@example.com. On Twitter @jontalton.
|Big draws 2011|
|Seattle hosts a wide variety of conventions and trade shows attracting people from around the country and the world to the Washington State Convention Center. Last year, Lions Club International had the largest estimated economic impact.|
|July||Lions Clubs International||13,234||$30,382,419|
|April||Association of American Geographers||7,331||$16,839,307|
|September||American Political Science Association||6,500||$14,471,000|
|March||American Pharmacists Association||6,500||$14,930,500|
|November||North American Bridge Championship||5,000||$7,705,000|
|January||American Meteorological Society||4,571||$10,499,587|
|September||American Fisheries Society||4,200||$9,647,400|
|Source: Washington State Convention Center|
About Jon Talton
Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest