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Originally published June 27, 2011 at 1:08 AM | Page modified June 27, 2011 at 8:04 PM

Washington state pulls the plug on tourism agency

Washington state is shuttering the official tourist agency that unifies its marketing message and abandoning virtually all marketing support for tourism, one of its largest industries.

Associated Press

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OLYMPIA, Wash. —

Washington state is shuttering the official tourism agency that unifies its marketing message and abandoning public support for one of its largest industries.

By the end of next week, it will be the only state in the nation with virtually no money to spend on self-promotion.

The transition is the most extreme example of the widely varying strategies among states trying to balance budget cuts with ways to spur economic growth. Some are pouring millions of dollars into fresh marketing, while others like New York and Arizona are slashing their promotional spending to help shore up state budgets.

Then there's Washington.

"What Washington has done puts that state on an island," said Geoff Freeman, executive vice president of U.S. Travel Association. "No state at this point in time has been, with all due respect to Washington, as short-sighted as those leaders have been."

Washington's tourism spending dropped in recent years from about $7 million annually to about $2 million annually. Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt, who has for years sat on a commission that guides the state's tourism strategy, said the full elimination of that money was an unfortunate consequence of the current budget crisis.

"When you're taking kids off health care and raising tuition, you have to make some tough decisions," Hewitt said.

Washington's tourism industry is the state's fourth largest, and visitors to the state spent some $15.2 billion in 2010, according to state figures.

While about half of states are shrinking their marketing budgets, the other half are increasing them, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

Congress, meanwhile, recently approved a public-private partnership to draw international visitors, fearing that millions around the globe were shying away from the United States as a whole. Costs for the program will be divided equally between the government and private industry.

Michigan, which has consistently had one of the nation's worst unemployment rates, has boosted its state-funded promotional spending from about $5 million per year in 2005 to $25 million per year now.

The state is in the middle of its largest national advertising buy - spending more than $11 million to splash its "Pure Michigan" message on cable. George Zimmermann, vice president for Travel Michigan, said their research indicates that a dollar spent on out-of-state advertising returns $3.29 cents in tax money alone - and much more for businesses.

"It's a bit of a no-brainer," Zimmerman said. "Tourism is not the answer to restoring the Michigan economy, but we do believe it's one of the answers."

The only other state that comes close to rivaling Washington's cuts during the recession is Connecticut, which essentially eliminated its tourism budget for two years but maintained its staff. Connecticut is now quickly reversing itself, with a new budget for the biennium that starts in July proposing to restore $15 million to the program.

Randy Fiveash, Connecticut's tourism division director, said the industry there has been limping along and struggling to stay competitive

"We know we lost market share," Fiveash said.

To fill its void, Washington's tourism industry has established the Washington Tourism Alliance to promote the state. It obtained state funding to take over some assets -- such as the state tourism website -- but is still trying to identify a way to steadily fund a marketing campaign.

The group has raised more than $300,000, said Kim Bennett, president and CEO of the Vancouver Regional Tourism Office in southwest Washington. She would like to see a minimum of $15 million.

"We cannot continue to operate and be competitive with other states without appropriate funding," Bennett said. "Everyone who is selling a good or a service or a destination, you have to get out and market. Your competitors are out there marketing."

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Seattle Times travel staff contributed to this report

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