Washington state has always been a natural beauty who thinks she can rely on her looks. When it comes to tourism, the come-hither look of Mt. Rainier has always worked. Who needs an ad campaign?
Here's the ultimate result of that attitude in Olympia: Our state's tourism department, always on the budget bubble, has finally been chopped entirely. Eliminated. Cut. Finito. Washington is now, according to the New York Times, the only state with no statewide tourism office and the only state that will spend no public money promoting tourism. A private group will try and pick up a little of the slack.
Eliminating the tourism promotion is a bad idea, because it's cleaner and more profitable to entice travelers to bring their wallets and dump millions here than it is to create tax-breaks to lure greedy corporations to set up shop and permanently fleece the public. Every time a cruise ship disgorges a new batch of tourists, cash registers ring. Every time we try and convince a company to move or stay here, we wind up paying more than our fair share of the B&O while they laugh through their custom-made tax loopholes.
But, what's done is done. Washington is left to coast on reputation alone. It presents an opportunity to make cider from sour apples. We need to play up our tourism outlier status. One of the best things Oregon ever did for its brand was when Gov. Tom McCall went on national television and encouraged people to visit Oregon, but also told them to please go home. What? A Western state eschewing growth? Trying to protect itself against the hordes? Instantly, the state became forbidden fruit, a Shangri-la unwilling to prostitute itself to outsiders. Ecotopia was born.
Gov. Christine Gregoire and candidates Jay Inslee and Rob McKenna should now pick up the McCall mantle. Washington can now re-brand itself by playing hard-to-get.
Such branding nearly always has the opposite effect. Newspaper columnist Emmett Watson, the father of Lesser Seattle, understood this. He knew that nothing made Seattle seem more attractive than letting people know we didn't want to share it. He also knew that people who came anyway would convert to become the most vocal, ardent advocates of the Lesser world view. As Seattle played coy, it boosted interest and created a virtuous cycle for growth that Watson was secretly pleased to have.
Reluctance is something you can sell. Watson's Lesser movement was 20th-century Seattle's greatest marketing campaign.
Travelers and tourists today have many choices. You can fly anywhere at anytime. That was Boeing's gift to the world. But it also created stiff competition. Why visit Rainier when you haven't seen Kilimanjaro? Also, there are major new markets that are just finding their way into globetrotting, notably the Chinese, who many in the travel business hope are "the new Japanese" when it comes to tourism. Many countries are laying out the red carpet for a new generation of tourists who are just beginning to explore the world.
But if you can go anywhere anytime, where are you going to find "genuine" experiences? Places like North Korea, Bhutan, and Antarctica are growing destinations. They're isolated, mysterious, dangerous.
So can our cider-making include a new kind of isolationism that matches our state budget priorities? Send us your out-of-state students because we need their tuition money, but please don't come to see them on vacation! Concerned parents will flood in if asked to stay home.
Instead of an ad campaign, we could start putting up "keep out" signs. We could post warnings at the border: "Danger: Washington's Natural Beauty is Likely to be Harmful to Your Health." How many people die in the outdoors every year? We have killer mountain goats. Last year, a Bellevue City Council member had his eye clawed out by a bear. "Beware of Washington, It Can Put an Eye Out!" Dangerous is good.
And Washingtonians can begin to exude a big chill via Facebook and other social media. "Having a wonderful time! Glad you aren't here!" The don't-come-hither approach will guarantee your hide-a-bed is in constant use as friends and relatives flock to see what the fuss is about.
If the budget reality is that we can't print brochures, maintain websites, or put ads in Travel & Leisure, then we better have a grassroots back-up plan. Finding ways to convince people that travel here is dangerous, unwelcome, that the ripest thing here is forbidden fruit, is certain to keep the hotels happy.
You either have to play the game all-out and market yourself, or engage in an anti-marketing, guerrilla campaign.
"Washington: See the Other 49 States First" is a guaranteed slam-dunk of a slogan.