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Originally published April 5, 2012 at 3:36 PM | Page modified April 6, 2012 at 2:50 PM

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Businesses hope to raise millions to promote Washington tourism

After state funding vanished, the Washington Tourism Alliance is trying to raise money through a self-imposed tax to promote the state as a tourist destination.

Seattle Times travel writer

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Faced with being outspent by every other state on tourism promotion, a travel-industry group is advocating a self-imposed tax that could raise anywhere from $7.5 million to $15 million annually to sell Washington state.

The Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA), a 425-member trade group formed last year after state lawmakers eliminated $1.8 million in funding for tourism promotion, hopes to have a plan to take to the Legislature by next year, executive director Suzanne Fletcher said Thursday.

Calling the proposal "a work in progress," she emphasized the assessment, if approved, would not involve any public money.

Hotels, restaurants, rental-car agencies, retailers and operators of tourist attractions would pay an agreed-upon amount (technically not a tax), which the state would collect and the WTA would administer.

The idea is similar to fundraising used in California and other states that have faced funding cuts, although Washington is the only state to have its tourism budget cut to zero.

British Columbia, by contrast, spends $65 million annually on tourism promotion. Oregon spends $10 million.

"Unless we have a totally volunteer program, we have to go to the Legislature to make this work," Andy Olsen of Columbia Hospitality, a Seattle hotel and hospitality management company, told a group of 450 people at the WTA's second annual Tourism Summit at SeaTac. Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau came to the same conclusion when it lobbied downtown hotels to go along with the formation of a "tourism improvement area," approved by the Seattle City Council last year. The area includes hotels with 60 or more rooms (54 downtown) that pay a $2-per-night room tax expected to generate $6 million to $7 million this year for tourism promotion.

The WTA plans to spend the next few months working with travel-industry groups to come up with a plan.

One question is whether businesses other than hotels would agree to go along, and if so, if they would pass the costs onto customers directly, or absorb them.

"We're optimistic but cautious," Olsen said.

As the state's fourth-largest industry behind aerospace, technology and agriculture, tourism generated an estimated $1 billion in state and local tax revenue last year based on $16.4 billion in travel spending, up 5 percent from 2010, according to a travel-impact report compiled for the WTA by Dean Runyan Associates of Portland.

Most of the spending increase, however, was due to higher prices for hotel rooms and transportation in 2011. Adjusted for inflation, overall tourism spending has changed little in the past five years, according to the report.

"Raising funds for the WTA has been very difficult," Fletcher said, one reason members feel a need to make a bigger push.

While its membership has grown to include big hotels and visitors bureaus as well as small B&Bs and wineries, not everyone is sold on its mission.

Susan Harris, executive director of the Pend Oreille River Tourism Alliance in Newport, on the Washington-Idaho border, decided not to join, saying she was concerned the WTA might give short shrift to small, out-of-the-way destinations that want visitors but not mass tourism.

"My concern was how do you meld the urban coastal approach with this underdeveloped and happy-to-be-so part of the world?"

Harris calls the impact of the state ending tourism-promotion funding "huge" for smaller communities.

"If we had a problem, I could call somebody and know that I would at least be heard."

Carol Pucci: On Twitter @carolpucci.

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