This op-ed piece is submitted by Sandy Ward, CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on local jobs. Small businesses, restaurants and lodging have been hit disproportionately hard. On May 26, the Bellingham Herald reported: “Recent unemployment numbers show tourism taking the biggest hit.” While every industry has experienced job losses in Whatcom County, the tourism industry shed 6,400 jobs in April compared to a year ago, and Whatcom County’s unemployment rate was higher than the state average.
Although to many residents, tourism may not be immediately recognized as a major industry, in 2019 more than 3 million visitors to Bellingham and Whatcom County supported 7,443 jobs (in stores, restaurants, attractions, outdoor recreation, lodging and transportation), with a payroll of $244.9 million. In total, visitors spent $555 million in Whatcom County in 2019, an increase of 4.3% over the previous year.
The U.S.-Canada border is closed, many of our activities have moved to online, and a multitude of festivals and events are cancelled through the summer months. Whatcom County, and especially the border communities of Blaine, Point Roberts, Lynden and Sumas, continue to feel the financial loss of visitor revenue. When the timing is right, we must work together to win these visitors back for the survival of our businesses and the benefits tourism brings to residents of Whatcom County.
Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism works every day to attract visitors. Our efforts go far beyond just filling hotel rooms, restaurants and attraction venues. Every community must compete with every other community in Washington state for their share of the world’s attention, customers, ideas and investment. For our local businesses to compete, potential visitors need to be aware of our destination, have a positive impression, and feel that keeping them safe and healthy in Whatcom County is our main objective. They then will feel comfortable visiting and experiencing our communities and meeting our local people.
Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism is funded in large part through a portion of taxes collected on lodging revenues. Since occupancy rates at hotels here are at record lows, this pool of funding has been dramatically reduced. Although we have taken extreme measures to reduce our expenses, we are also facing a massive budget shortfall for tourism promotion in 2021.
During the Stay Home, Stay Safe order, we paused our advertising campaigns and posted a Travel Advisory that is updated often several times a day, to reflect the changing and often confusing landscape of regulations and safety measures. We have supported our local restaurants and businesses with posts of updated information on our website that has seen 170,000 page views since mid-March.
During Phase 2 and as we look forward to Phase 3, our most important goal is to educate visitors and residents on how to share the responsibility of keeping our community safe by following Whatcom County Health Department guidelines. We have developed Guidelines for Safe Visiting and, as part of our active participation with the Health Department’s COVID-19 Employer Support Taskforce, we will roll out a Safer Stronger Together Pledge that can be adopted by businesses, residents and visitors alike to keep Whatcom County safe as we move forward through the phased openings.
We know it is crucially important that Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism survive this crisis, because we will be among the most important drivers in the recovery of the local economy. We are responsible for programs promoting our community as an attractive travel destination and enhancing our public image as a dynamic place to live and work. Through destination stewardship and brand management, we strengthen the community’s economic position and vitality, which in turn provides opportunity for all the people who live here. We will support and lead our local tourism industry through the COVID-19 crisis and into economic recovery.
It is important for us all to be united in our efforts as we look forward to the recovery phases of this pandemic. Together we can make a better future!
One of the fastest ways to economic recovery in 2020 and beyond will be through safe and sustainable tourism.