Figures released by the Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA) indicate that tourism in Washington State logged double digit growth during the past five years – generating $10.9 billion in direct state GDP in 2019 alone – before the industry’s near total shut down in 2020 due to COVID-19.
Visitor volume, expenditures, tax contributions and tourism jobs all increased in 2019, according to Economic Impacts of Visitors in Washington State, compiled by national travel research firm Tourism Economics for the WTA. Visitor volume increased by 2.0 percent last year to a total of 110 million visitors in the state, and direct visitor spending totaled $21.9 billion, up 4.5 percent in current dollars over 2018. On average, visitors spent $60 million per day in Washington State last year.
Travel spending in Whatcom County ranks 5th in Washington State after King, Pierce, Spokane and Snohomish Counties. The most recent data compiled by Tourism Economics for the Washington Tourism Alliance and WSDMO shows travel spending in Whatcom County was $555 million in 2019.
Over three million visitors to Bellingham and Whatcom County in 2019 supported 7,443 jobs with a payroll of $244.9 million. Travel spending in Whatcom County generated $70.7 million in state and local taxes in 2019. Each household in Whatcom County would have to pay an additional $831 in taxes each year were it not for tourism.
However, Washington State has experienced a dramatic decline in tourism in 2020 due to the global pandemic. Since the beginning of March, visitor spending in Washington has declined by $3.8 billion compared with last year’s figures. Traveler spending in Washington has averaged losses of 77 percent over the past 12 weeks. Hotel room revenue alone has declined 72 percent between March 1 and May 23. And in April alone, Seattle Tacoma International Airport experienced a decrease of 93.6 percent in passenger volume, compared with April 2019; international traffic decreased 97.1 percent and domestic traffic decreased 93.1 percent.
“Our state’s tourism industry has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” said WTA Interim Executive Director David Blandford. “That impact was sudden and severe in every industry sector and immediately undercut funding for nonprofit destination marketing programs needed to jumpstart economic recovery and sustain jobs.”
Continued loss of tourism jobs in Washington remains a major concern – in the tourism industry and beyond. The state’s tourism industry supported more than 165,000 jobs in 2019, an increase of 2.3 percent over the previous year, and these jobs generated direct income of $5.7 billion. While these tourism industry jobs represent 3.5 percent of all jobs in the state, the economic activity supported by visitors supports a total of 5.1 percent of all jobs in Washington.
This year, COVID-19 has acutely damaged employment in Washington State’s travel sector, according to Tourism Economics’ analysis. Job losses within the leisure and hospitality sector represented 42 percent of all job losses in the state through the end of April. Through the week ending May 16, there have been 1.2 million unemployment claims in Washington. This implies over half a million jobs lost in the leisure and hospitality sector.
“Because such a large share of job losses are related to travel, an economic recovery can only come through a restoration of travel to and within Washington state,” said Adam Sachs, President of Tourism Economics.
The loss of taxes paid by visitors also deeply impacts the tourism industry, as well as Washington citizens and cities and counties throughout the state. Each household in Washington would need to be taxed an additional $1,065 to replace the visitor taxes received by state and local governments last year. State and local taxes, generated by direct visitor spending, tallied nearly $2.4 billion in 2019, a 5.4% increase over 2018.
Transient occupancy taxes (lodging taxes) – which have quickly declined amid the pandemic – are imposed in all of Washington’s 39 counties (by both counties and many cities within) and revenue derived from lodging taxes supports tourism related facilities, events and marketing. The severe shortfall in lodging tax receipts has also deeply impacted the state’s non-profit destination marketing organizations (DMOs) with drastic reductions to tourism marketing programs and staff layoffs of 30-70 percent.
“While a full recovery will likely take several years, we’re hopeful that a rebound in travel and tourism can begin in earnest this summer, and accelerate as we move into 2021,” said Blandford. “Our industry is prepared to do its part by promoting safe and responsible travel, but investment in tourism marketing and recovery is critical to its ability to recover visitor volume, expenditures, tax revenue and employment for our state,” said Blandford.
This is the first year that the WTA has collaborated with Tourism Economics to compile its annual state visitation report. In addition to this benchmark 2019 report, The WTA asked Tourism Economics to include a five-year look back report to ensure consistency in annual reporting. According to the reports, between 2015 and 2019, Washington State achieved double digit tourism growth. Visitor spending increased 4.8 percent per annum between 2015 and 2019 and tourism employment saw cumulative growth of 15 percent.
About the Washington Tourism Alliance
The Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA) is a 501[c]6 organization established by industry stakeholders with the sole mission of sustaining Washington State destination tourism marketing. The WTA procures and administers funds for state destination tourism marketing activities and creates and implements a strategic statewide destination marketing plan. www.watourismalliance.com