OLYMPIA, Wash. » Like a business trying to sell a product, Washington state has for years attracted visitors by promoting stunning images of some of the nation’s most majestic scenery — from the snowcapped peaks of the Cascades to the rain forests and thundering waterfalls of the Olympic Peninsula.
That marketing is now coming to an abrupt end.
“When you’re taking kids off health care and raising tuition, you have to make some tough decisions,” said Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt, who has for years sat on a commission that guides Washington’s tourism strategy.
In May the state Legislature eliminated the remaining funding for the tourism agency, about $2 million for the coming fiscal year. State support had been as high as $7 million in years past.
Visitors to Washington spent about $15.2 billion in 2010, according to state figures.
Not all states are taking Washington’s approach. Some view tourism as a key industry that will contribute to an economic rebound, one that is worthy of state support even in an era of declining revenue for other services.
Michigan, surrounded by the Great Lakes, is pouring millions of dollars into marketing campaigns, hoping for any advantage in the competition for the small amount of discretionary cash consumers are willing to spend on travel.
Even though Michigan has consistently had one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, it will spend about $25 million this year on marketing. That is five times the budget it had for self-promotion just six years ago. The state’s tourism industry contributes a small amount.
Michigan is now 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 research indicates that a dollar spent on out-of-state advertising returns $3.29 cents in tax money alone — and much more for businesses.
About half the states are shrinking their marketing budgets, while the other half plan to increase them, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
Even Hawaii, one of the world’s leading tourism destinations, is trying to redirect tourism money to other uses.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie said this year that tax dollars spent on promoting tourism were disproportionate to other needs. He vowed to spend more of that money on social programs, environmental protection and infrastructure improvements.
Marketing money comes from a 9.25 percent tax on Hawaii hotel rooms and other accommodations. The amount to be spent from that pot on tourism will be capped at $69 million for the next four fiscal years.
Some states have established public-private partnerships to share the cost of marketing.
California state government pays for just a fraction of a tourism budget that relies on assessments paid by hotels, restaurants, rental car companies and other tourism-related businesses. The annual budget for promoting travel to California is about $50 million, but only about $200,000 of that will come from the state in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
To fill the void, Washington’s tourism industry has established a new promotional organization. It will take over some state assets — such as the tourism website — but is still trying to identify a way to fund a sustained marketing campaign. The group has raised more than $300,000, said Kim Bennett, chief executive officer of the Vancouver Regional Tourism Office in southwestern Washington. She would like to see a minimum of $15 million.
Meanwhile, New York’s spending on tourism is down 60 percent to $5.5 million, while Arizona is down 40 percent to $8 million.