Walla Walla economy slow to catch up to tourism

Local numbers didn't take a hit until late 2008, officials say.

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WALLA WALLA -- The start of a recession apparently didn't faze tourists heading into Walla Walla last year.

Visitors spent a record $91.4 million in their travels to the community in 2008, according to new figures released by the Washington State Office of Community, Trade and Economic Development.

Tourism officials say visitors weren't deterred by the economy until the last two months of the year, a downturn that will more likely be reflected when next year's report details the 2009 picture, said Tourism Walla Walla Chief Executive Officer Michael Davidson.

"This is a little look backwards," Davidson said this morning. "The thing it points out is that tourism has for many years been a growth industry in the Valley. Next year's report probably isn't going to show these numbers."

Davidson said the numbers didn't begin to drop until last November. That was the first month since Tourism Walla Walla began operations in 2005 that the number of rooms sold decreased from the previous year.

He predicts a 10 percent drop in visitor spending this year, a decrease he said would take Walla Walla down to 2007 levels. Room sales are already down about 7 percent, he said.

Last year's numbers were detailed in "Washington State County Travel Impacts 1991-2008," a study by Portland-based Dean Runyan Associates for the state Office of Community, Trade and Economic Development. The report explores the economic effects of travel to and through the state's 39 counties.

According to the results, visitors to Walla Walla spent $7.4 million more on lodging, dining, shopping, transportation, entertainment, retail and more than in 2007.

The community's record 273,000 overnight visitors spent an average of 2.8 days in local hotels, motels, guest houses and bed-and-breakfasts, visiting local attractions, shopping in local stores and eating at local restaurants.

Walla Walla also hosted 186,000 day-trippers who spent an average $87 during their visits. Those who stayed overnight averaged $134 a day in spending here, the study revealed.

The industry created about 50 new local jobs, helping generate more than $24.4 million in salaries. That's an increase from $22.5 million in 2007, tourism officials said in an announcement this morning.

"Not only does the tourism industry pump new dollars into our community, it helps to create amenities that we otherwise would not enjoy, including recently added new events such as the Walla Walla Chamber Music Festival and Shakespeare Uncork'd," said Dave Warkentin, Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer, in a prepared statement.

Davidson said such events are key in building Walla Walla's numbers, particularly through the economic slump. In the first quarter of 2010, local bed-and-breakfasts are already slated to host their third annual Gourmet Getaways, weekend packages that offer hands-on cooking activities with local chefs, winery events and lodging. A bevy of bloggers is also scheduled to descend on the town for a conference in the second quarter of next year.

Dean Runyan Associates include in the analysis all trips to the state by U.S. residents and foreign visitors. So is travel by Washington residents to other destinations within the state, provided it is neither commuting nor routine travel. Travel can be for business, pleasure, shopping, meetings or for personal, medical or educational purposes.

Walla Walla's tourism helped boost Washington's travel spending by 5.7 percent in 2008. Visitors spending in the state was $15.7 billion last year, according to the study.

By the numbers
A breakdown of visitors' expenditures in 2008:

  • $17.7 million in lodging
  • $25.3 million on food and beverage services
  • $4.7 million on food stores
  • $18.6 million on ground transportation and motor fuel
  • $12.2 million on arts, entertainment and recreation
  • $12.1 million on retail sales
  • $200,000 on air transportation (visitor only)

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