Direct travel spending in Whatcom County took a $174M hit in 2020, down 31.4% from 2019, with tourism-supported employment down 44%. In an industry that previously grew on average 3.7% per year, this gap could show an opportunity for rebound.
Recent data released by Tourism Economics shows that COVID’s impact on tourism and hospitality resulted in a decrease in direct travel spending in Whatcom County of 31.4% in 2020. The study, prepared for Washington Tourism Alliance and Washington State Destination Marketing Organizations Association, tracks visitors to the region, their associated spend in five categories, and subsequent industry jobs. Visitors to Whatcom County were down 22.7% from over 3M in 2019, and the jobs supported by visitation dropped from 7,443 in 2019 to 4,199 in 2020, a painful 44% decrease for workers and their families.
Fig A: Breakdown of direct spending in Whatcom County in 2019, a total of $555,100,000
When the direct visitor spending for 2020 is separated into 5 industry categories, the loss percentages further vary. The Whatcom transportation sector showed the greatest relative loss, at 43% of the previous year’s visitor spend. Recreation and attractions took a 33% loss in direct visitor spending, and the other categories—accommodations, retail, and food and beverage—came in at 27%-29% of the previous year’s visitor spending.
Fig B: Breakdown of direct spending in Whatcom County in 2020 and trends chart
“The tourism sector has been hit horribly hard in the past 15 months, as this 2020 data indicates,” says Sandy Ward, CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, “and that has repercussions throughout our economy. On the other hand, this industry’s capacity to drive millions in revenue and taxes even while we were down over 30%, shows its power.”
Additional study data shows the value of a traveler per person in 2020. Day traveler spending per person in Whatcom County is $58, overnight “paid accommodations” spending per person is $271, and overnight “friends/family accommodations” spending per person is $145. With the Canadian border closed, many retailers are especially feeling the sting of the lack of day travelers to Whatcom County from the North.
“The opportunity for rebound exists within this data. If the 2019 tourism spending would have increased at its average 3.7% tracked over the previous 5 years, then just one half of a year would represent close to $290M in direct spending. That half a year could be the remainder of 2021, as the state fully reopens, that is the opportunity. Traveler sentiment is strong in national studies, and people are looking to make up for missed vacations and family time,” says Amy Guerra, BWCT Marketing Director.
Other positive trends for Whatcom County are that coastal and smaller town regions fared way better in the period of this study. Metro areas whose visitation is regularly driven by conferences and business travel suffered the worst, while smaller communities with outdoor family activities could still enjoy some safe visitation and will be early targets for resumed travel.
Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism is an independent, 501 (c)(6) nonprofit economic development organization whose purpose is to improve the economy by marketing Bellingham Whatcom County as a premier, year-round visitor, sports, outdoor recreation, arts and cultural, and meetings destination, which supports all travel, tourism, and hospitality businesses and nonprofits in Whatcom County.