September 17, 2011; Source: Yakima Herald | This summer, Washington earned the dubious honor of being the only state in the country to close its tourism office. Now volunteers are stepping up to promote its festivals, natural attractions, charming communities, and big cities. At stake are millions of dollars and thousands of jobs that were supported by visitors.

Tourism is one of the largest industries in the state. A recent study showed that travelers spent $15.2 billion while supporting 143,000 jobs in 2010. The Washington Tourism Alliance, composed of mostly representatives from hotels, convention centers, and tourism-based small businesses, is crafting an emergency back-up plan in hopes of keeping the state a tourist destination.

The alliance has so far raised $300,000 through donations from tourist-related businesses. But it needs more. It hopes to boost funding through membership dues and new corporate donations. Within the next three years, the group wants to develop a plan to tax tourism-related businesses as a source of funding.

State officials from Colorado warn that reducing travel-promotion dollars can damage a state’s tourism industry for years. Within two years of closing its tourism office in 1993, Colorado saw a 30-percent drop in visitors. Coloradans also formed a volunteer -based group that lasted only a few months before it ran out of money. Officials note that the state didn’t fully recover until 11 years after reopening its tourism office. Today, Colorado tourism generates $6.25 for every $1.00 spent on promotion.

Other states, including Hawaii, Texas, and Louisiana, have increased their tourism budgets, indicating that competition for the traveler’s dollar is intense.

What do you think? Can the private sector handle the tourism-promotion business better than the state? Is it smart to cut funding for state tourism agencies?—Nancy Knoche