Private group wants to promote Washington tourism

YAKIMA -- This summer cash-strapped Washington became the only state in the nation to close its tourism office. Now, a private group of tourism boosters are trying to promote Washington to visitors.

The nonprofit, mostly volunteer-run Washington Tourism Alliance met last week in Yakima with about 30 representatives of hotels, convention centers and wineries to craft a plan to promote the state's wineries, backcountry and cities.

"What are our options?" asked Jim Milne of the Prosser Chamber of Commerce, who added that there's no alternative but to have faith in the Washington Tourism Alliance. "We have no choice. We have to jump on board."

John Cooper, president and chief executive officer of the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau, is now an executive board member of the alliance.

"If not us, who? If not now, when?" he asked. "We have to take control of our destiny."

Tourism is one of the largest industries in the state, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported. A study commissioned by the Washington state Department of Commerce shows travelers spent $15.2 billion and supporting 143,800 jobs last year.

In Yakima County, visitors spent $311 million last year and helped maintain about 3,370 jobs, according to the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau.

In 2005, Washington invested $3.6 million in tourism, ranking 46th in the country. In 2010, funding dropped to $1.8 million. In July, it fell to zero.

Meanwhile, tourism budgets are increasing in Hawaii, Texas and Louisiana, threatening to steer prospective Washington travelers to other states, said Suzanne Fletcher, the alliance's executive director.

The alliance said it needs cash to move forward. It also wants to boost membership, which includes about 115 companies and individuals.

"The first year is critical," said Fletcher, who has canvassed the state searching for members and money since being hired in August.

In three years, she wants to approach state lawmakers with a plan to assess tourism- related businesses, which could include restaurants, hotels and even car-rental agencies.

Central Washington lawmakers don't dispute the economic importance of tourism, but they differ on ways to promote it.

The idea of an assessment tax to pay for a private statewide tourism promotion group gets mixed reviews.

"Good luck. I don't think you can expect the state to put an assessment tax on anybody," said state Rep. Norm Johnson, R-Yakima.