By Sandy Ward, CEO and President, Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on local jobs. Small businesses, restaurants and lodging have been hit disproportionately hard. While impact data continues to unfold, and the COVID-19 situation rapidly evolves, information to date suggests a sustained downturn in the economy throughout the summer and into fall. Others predict it could be 2021 before a significant recovery starts.
On May 26, the Bellingham Herald reported: “Recent unemployment numbers show tourism taking the biggest hit.” While every industry has experienced job losses in Whatcom County, the tourism industry shed 6,400 jobs in April compared to a year ago, and Whatcom County’s unemployment rate was higher than the state average.
Although to many residents, tourism may not be immediately recognized as a major industry, in 2019 more than three million visitors to Bellingham and Whatcom County supported 7,443 jobs (in stores, restaurants, attractions, outdoor recreation, lodging, and transportation), with a payroll of $244.9 million. In total, visitors spent $555 million in Whatcom County in 2019, an increase of 4.3% over the previous year.
With the U.S. – Canada border closed, Western Washington University classes and activities moved to online, and our multitude of festivals and events cancelled through the summer months, Whatcom County continues to feel the financial loss of visitor revenue. When the timing is right, we must work together to win these visitors back for the survival of our businesses and the benefits tourism brings to residents of Whatcom County. In fact, without tourism each household in Whatcom County would have to pay an additional $831 in state and local taxes each year.
Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism works every day to attract visitors. Our efforts go far beyond just filling hotel rooms, restaurants, and attractions. That is only a means to a greater end. Every destination must compete with every other destination in Washington State for their share of the world’s attention, customers, ideas, and investment. For our local businesses to compete, potential visitors need to be aware of our destination, have a positive impression, and feel that keeping them safe and healthy in Whatcom County is our main objective so they will be comfortable visiting and experiencing our communities and meeting our local people.
This is achieved through clearly developing, articulating and managing our Bellingham and Whatcom County brand. The message must be reinforced again and again. Destination marketing organizations are uniquely positioned to do this. Addressing this need for destination promotion is for the benefit and well-being of every person in our community. It is a common good. It is an essential investment to develop opportunities and build quality of life to benefit all the residents of a community.
Our promotions are funded in large part through a portion of taxes collected on lodging revenues in our destination. Since occupancy rates at hotels here are at record lows, this pool of funding has been dramatically reduced. Though we have taken extreme measures to reduce our expenses, we are also facing a massive budget shortfall for tourism promotion in 2021.
Despite all this uncertainty, our staff continues to communicate with future travelers to keep Bellingham and Whatcom County top of mind, as well as with local businesses and organizations to provide direction toward economic resources and assistance in reaching out to local audiences.
From the onset of the crisis, Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism has been working with community partners, stakeholders, and the Whatcom County Health Department. During the Stay Home, Stay Safe order, we paused our advertising campaigns and posted a Travel Advisory that is updated often several times as day, to reflect the changing and often confusing landscape of regulations and safety measures. We have supported our local restaurants and businesses with posts with updated information on our website that has seen 170,000 pageviews since mid-March.
During Phase 2, and as we look forward to Phase 3, our most important goal is to educate visitors and residents on how to share the responsibility of keeping our community safe by following Whatcom County Health Department’s guidelines. This partnership is key to moving forward carefully and cohesively. We have developed Guidelines for Safe Visiting and, as part of our active participation with the Whatcom County Health Department’s COVID-19 Employer Support Taskforce, we will roll out a Safer Stronger Together Pledge that can be adopted by businesses, residents, and visitors alike to keep Whatcom County safe as we move forward through the phased openings.
We know it is crucially important that Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism survive this crisis, because we will be among the most important drivers in the recovery of the local economy. We are responsible for programs promoting our community as an attractive travel destination and enhancing our public image as a dynamic place to live and work. Through destination stewardship and brand management, we strengthen the community’s economic position and vitality which provides opportunity for all the people who live here.
Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism will continue to communicate with future travelers to keep Bellingham and Whatcom County, and Washington State top of mind, as well as with local businesses and organizations to provide direction toward economic resources and assistance in reaching out to local audiences. We will support and lead our local tourism industry through the COVID-19 crisis and into economic recovery.
It is important for us all to be united in our efforts as we look forward to the recovery phases of this pandemic. Together we can make a better future!
One of the fastest ways to economic recovery in 2020 and beyond will be through safe and sustainable tourism.
Travel Industry Projected Impact
A study by the U.S. Travel Association and research firm Tourism Economics estimated the COVID-19 impact on the U.S. travel industry: