Signs point to a shaky tourism season in Washington state

International visitors account for a quarter of Seattle's tourism revenue, but the dollar's strength against the Euro is keeping many of them home.
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International visitors account for a quarter of Seattle's tourism revenue, but the dollar's strength against the Euro is keeping many of them home.

Tourism is big business for Washington state, more than one might expect: $5.4 billion dollars a year for King County alone. Hotels, restaurants and retail shopping account for $1.5 billion apiece. The rest is divided between local transportation, entertainment, and groceries. That works out to a cool $4 million a day in restaurant revenues, just for openers, so when visitors go away, so do entire restaurants.

Almost a quarter of the money comes from international visitors — twice as much as business travelers spend, and four times as much as conventioneers. So when the Euro loses value against the dollar, as it's been doing lately, tourism revenue here drops dramatically. Since the beginning of the year, the dollar is up by 17 percent against the Euro.

Of course there are other factors to consider, chief among them the worldwide economic downturn. There also are advantages as well as disadvantages to the shifting exchange rate; from Italian fashions to left-bank bistros, European goods and services would be less expensive (in dollars), even as airplanes and other American hard goods become more costly (in Euros).

But there are signs of a shaky tourism season ahead. Some of the local evidence is indisputable: International arrivals at Sea-Tac International Airport were down 5 percent in April over the previous year. Some is anecdotal: Sunday brunch cruises on the Argosy ships, which would regularly sell out during the tourist season, are leaving the dock half full, if they leave at all.

An exception: the Space Needle, a must-see destination regardless of the economy, where all the numbers (guests, average check) are up. Also on the plus side: The 50-odd additional cruise ships coming to call in the 2010 season.

David Blandford of the Seattle Convention & Visitors Bureau (the folks who dubbed Seattle "Metronatural"), says it's too early to tell how much international tourism will be down this year, if at all. Last year's drop (4 percent fewer visitors nationally, a 6 percent drop in expenditures) may not carry forward. Still, Blandford cautions that there may be reasons beyond the stronger Euro keeping visitors away: "Volcanoes and air fares, for example."

For comparison's sake, travel in France helps illustrate the dollar-to-Euro phenomenon in reverse. Despite a 6 percent downturn in travel to France in 2009, that country remains the world's No. 1 travel destination with 74 million visitors. Only 4 percent of them, 3.2 million, were Americans, but according to Jean-Philippe Perol, who runs Atout France, the French Tourism Development Agency for the Americas, "If the exchange stays around $1.20 to the Euro, we expect that results for American travel to France this year will be up 4 to 6 percent."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).