Tri-Cities tourism sees rise in '09

At a time when most communities across the nation and the state are seeing a decline in tourism, the Tri-Cities is seeing growth.

The area saw about a 4 percent increase last year in the number of hotel rooms rented over the previous year, said Kim Shugart, vice president of operations for the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau.

That compares to drops in hotel occupancy of 5.3 percent in Spokane, 4.1 percent in Yakima and 9.6 percent in King County.

Travel and tourism is a $366 million industry in the Tri-Cities that helps sustain more than 4,400 jobs annually and helps diversify the economy, according the bureau's soon-to-be-released annual report.

Beginning this week, bureau officials will present their report to city councils in Richland, Pasco and Kennewick, Shugart said. It's a yearly presentation to let the community know that its dollars are being spent to promote economic development, she said.

The report also highlights the special marketing campaigns that have helped draw visitors to the community.

The bulk of the tourists came from the Northwest to enjoy the local wineries, weather and golf, Shugart said.

Last year, the bureau launched a new website that includes a searchable events calendar and video and photo library, and used online social networking tools to reach out to potential travelers and increase visibility.

This year the bureau plans to continue to market the Tri-Cities as a destination, working in partnership with private and public agencies, she said.

The convention market has become very competitive as some of the bigger metro areas in the state have lost tourism revenue, Shugart said. The bureau is working with convention and group travel planners to market the Tri-Cities.

"We are trying to be pro-active in recruiting new business," she said.

About 180 conventions, meetings and sports events worth $34.9 million in direct spending are planned for 2010 and beyond.

Last year, more than 113,000 visitors came to the Tri-Cities to attend 162 conventions, sports and group activities valued at more than $32.5 million in direct spending, the report says.

The report also gives an insight into the work done by the bureau to promote heritage and eco-tourism.

The bureau helped update the Tri-Cities Bicycle Map, worked with the Ice Age Floods Institute to produce the "Story of the Ice Age Floods" brochure, and directed a community letter-writing campaign to keep open Sacajawea State Park in the face of state budget cuts.

Last year, travelers to Washington spent an estimated $14.2 billion, helping make travel and tourism one of the largest industries in the state.

-- Pratik Joshi: 582-1541;; Business Beat blog at