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Originally published Friday, May 18, 2012 at 9:13 PM

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State's tourism bellwether rings loudly in the San Juans

Almost a year after budget cuts closed the state's tourism office, the tourism-dependent San Juan Islands are battling back from tough times with targeted strategies to lure visitors, and a little boost from big media.

Seattle Times travel staff

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We do love visitors! Truly! Come for the county fair in August, where you'll find out... MORE
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FRIDAY HARBOR, San Juan Island — To get a bead on how the tourism-dependent San Juan Islands are rebounding from the sour economy, you might do well to consult The New York Times, National Geographic and a San Juan Island marriage counselor named Peggy Butler.

Both publications last year named the San Juans one of the world's top places to visit, and Butler, who lives down salal-lined Big Foot Road, north of Friday Harbor, has evidence the world heeded the call.

Last summer, she started counting out-of-state license plates on the island.

"My husband and I go walking every day, at American Camp and all over the island, and last August we started noticing how many cars were from other states," said Butler, who ended up writing about it in the island newspaper. Through September, they counted plates from all but six states.

It's actually the continuation of a trend, if you look at 2010 statistics from Friday Harbor's popular Whale Museum, which asks visitors where they hail from.

"It's every region in Washington, every state in the U.S., almost every province in Canada — I don't think we have Nunavut — and every continent but Antarctica!" said museum director Jenny Atkinson, who's still compiling numbers for 2011, but seeing the same trends.

Almost a year since budget cuts closed Washington's state-funded tourism agency last June, the visitor industry in this county of scenic islands — arguably a bellwether for state tourism — isn't on the rocks.

Tourism promoters are battling back from hard times with fresh efforts to fill the less-crowded "shoulder" seasons and mine the visitor industry's hottest niche markets, such as volunteer vacations, arts tourism and "agritourism" — farms and food.

And as a statewide group of tourism-industry leaders builds a new private-sector promotional organization, the year-old Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA), island tourism promoters seem cautiously optimistic.

Big-money competition

Even before the state budget deficit went viral, the Washington State Tourism Office was limping. Its final $1.8 million budget competed with the likes of California and British Columbia, each with promotional bankrolls of about $50 million a year.

Washington's money went toward efforts such as a printed tourism guide, promoting the state at travel conventions and so on.

With initial membership fees from 425 participants — a mix of hotels, local visitor bureaus, tour operators, etc. — WTA has picked up the guide and related website, experiencewa.com, and plans to go to Olympia in 2013 with a funding plan under which businesses might self-assess fees hoped to total at least $7.5 million annually to continue other marketing efforts.

"We set a very low starting point," said Suzanne Fletcher, WTA executive director. "It doesn't really make us competitive, but it keeps us in the running."

While San Juans tourism backers took the state agency's loss as a blow, making this the only state in the union with no government tourism program, last year's media ballyhoo buoyed spirits. The New York Times put the islands at No. 2 on its list of "41 Places to Go in 2011" while National Geographic Traveler ranked them third on its list of "10 Best Trips of Summer 2011."

Island promoters continue to trumpet the endorsements, hoping for more results this summer and next.

The payoff was spotty in 2011. While Friday Harbor lodging-tax receipts grew 7.2 percent from 2010, collections were almost flat for the rest of the county. However, that beat 2009's 15 percent plummet, which made the San Juans one of the hardest-socked regions in a bad year for much of the state.

It was a difficult year, too, for island artist Misty Todd, who developed a green-certified, high-end condo project on the Friday Harbor waterfront just in time for the real-estate market to drop like a big rock from a high dock.

But she "made lemonade" and converted the condos to the Island Inn, opened last May.

It gave the San Juan Islands Visitor Bureau a fresh lodging offering "that really helps our marketing" in these tough times, said Robin Jacobson, the agency's public-relations manager. "She didn't give up on this place."

Specialty vacations

Agritourism is big. That means farmers such as Orcas Island's John Steward are getting lots of encouragement to hold more events such as last month's Earth Day open house at his Maple Rock Farm, where he sold vegetable starts and served wood-fired pizza.

"It means having people come out and see what we are doing and what we're about, trying to provide food for local people and do it with some style," said the friendly, ruddy-faced Steward, who happily proclaims what he does, where he does it, "the best job in the world!"

The same day, on Lopez Island, as wood smoke spiced a salt breeze and visitors gobbled flame-roasted clams, Nick and Sara Jones, of Jones Family Farms, shared geoduck-farming secrets at their Shoal Bay open house.

You'll find both farms named on area menus. The local-food movement has taken firm root in island restaurants, and in the islands' marketing plan. At Doe Bay Café on Orcas, a chalkboard menu recently listed seven island farms providing raw ingredients, including Doe Bay Resort's own organic garden.

Not only can foodies enjoy a salad of just-picked greens topped by edible yellow and blue viola flowers from the Doe Bay garden, they can also volunteer in spring or fall to do garden work in exchange for lodging.

The Whale Museum is another venue for visitors with the urge to volunteer — combined with the islands' popular whale watching. Visitors with enough time may help with on-the-water education, reminding boaters to give space to orca pods.

Arts fans can come for Lopez Island's Labor Day studio tour or Orcas Island's new Shakespeare Festival. Before March's sold-out staging of "Hamlet," villagers in Eastsound donned Elizabethan garb for a procession through town.

"It doesn't take much for islanders to say, 'Oh, there's a parade! — and we get to dress up?' " said Lance Evans of the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce, which created the shoulder-season attraction.

Changing playing field

New blood helps. Cornell-trained Island Inn manager Scott Hale brings a savvy of search-engine optimization. Both the hotel and visitors bureau launched new websites in March, and many visitors now connect through those portals. With that new business model, is state promotion really needed?

"I don't know — it's working for us, but to do it on your own is like eating an elephant," Hale said.

"We have to compete with our neighbors for visitor dollars," said Deborah Hopkins, director of the San Juans visitors bureau, which now pays $2,500 a year for its WTA membership.

"We're firmly committed to it, but that's cash we could have used to promote our own area," the bureau's Jacobson added. "Yet we know if we can't promote Washington, we've missed Step One."

"This new group feels more approachable (than the state agency)," said Orcas's Evans.

WTA director Fletcher said a unified message is what her organization is all about. She recalls an exercise from her group's spring Tourism Summit. She asked hundreds of attendees from across the state to holler, all at once, what city they were from. The result was a garbled hubbub.

"And then I asked them to scream out what state they were from," she said, "and it was all in one voice."

Brian J. Cantwell is The Seattle Times Outdoors editor. He can be reached at 206-748-5724 or bcantwell@seattletimes.com.

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