It's summertime, and our parks, sidewalks, shops, hotels, and restaurants are crowded with happy visitors and proud locals. When you're out and about, you're probably going to see, meet, or just walk by a visitor. But you won't know it, because they look like us.
They might be attending a business meeting or just visiting family. Perhaps they're attending a convention—like one meeting's 5,500 attendees here in April. They might be here to take part in one of our great regional events—Hoopfest, as a fresh example. Whatever it is, they come in big numbers. In 2012, more than 1.05 million people visited Spokane County. To put it simply, we have a lot to offer a lot of different people, here in the Spokane region and statewide.
And, thankfully, Washington state lawmakers recognize this. Among the many important lines in the newly approved $33.6 billion state budget is a $1 million dollar expenditure that I'm confident will pay much, much more to all of us down the road.
Lawmakers agreed to allocate $500,000 each year of the biennium to the Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA). The funding will be used for maintaining the state's destination Web site, mailing the Washington State Visitor's Guide, operating a tourism call center, and for doing tourism research and international marketing.
In the past, the state tourism office would get the funding, but—as you might recall—that office was closed by the Legislature in 2011. Washington became the first and only state in the nation with no statewide tourism office and no state money to promote itself. The WTA is the industry-created private, nonprofit agency formed in the wake of that closure.
Since then, there is good news to report—and some not-so-good news. The latest data, released in March, shows that visitor spending in Spokane County is up about 7 percent from 2011-12. However, on a state level, visitor spending was up just 2.1 percent, which lagged behind the national average of 5.2 percent. This means it's critical to do the work of marketing our great state so that at a minimum, visitor spending increases statewide at least at the same rate as it does nationally.
The $1 million allocation for the 2014-15 biennium is called bridge funding, which means it's just enough for the basics, while the WTA works to build a sustainable private funding model. By the next budget, we hope to have our funding mechanism in place so we can promote this great state on a level that so many other states do.
By way of comparison, consider that California puts $60 million a year in public funds into its state tourism office. Montana spends $18 million annually, and Oregon invests about $14 million. Idaho spends $7 million each year.
Through private, voluntary assessments in key tourism industry sectors, and contributions from tourism-related businesses, we'll certainly be able to increase our marketing dollars but our goal is to not use taxpayer dollars. The only role we're advocating for the state in the future is procedural allocation.
Tourism's place in our state is crucial. It's the fourth-largest industry in the state. About $1 billion in tax revenue was generated by visitors on state and local levels in 2012. In Spokane County, visitors contributed $60.9 million in taxes last year while spending $870 million.
We thank lawmakers for the $1 million for the next two years. We see this bridge funding as a lifeline to solid, strategic ground: a comprehensive, well-funded program that markets everything our great state has to offer. It's going to be hard work for the next two years. The WTA, with its four-person staff, will be working double-time to use each penny of that funding in the best way possible: to, once again, tell the world about the great state of Washington.
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