WALLA WALLA -- Fewer business travelers packed their briefcases into town last year in the community's first major downturn in visitor spending in nearly two decades.
Visitors to Walla Walla County spent $86.7 million in 2009, a decrease of 5 percent -- or $4.7 million -- from 2008, according to figures released by the Washington State Office of Community, Trade and Economic Development.
Still Walla Walla saw a lower percentage drop than the rest of the state, the figures compiled by Oregon-based Dean Runyan Associates showed.
State tourism spending dropped 8.1 percent, and the recent trend of the country saw a 7.7 percent decline in tourism expenditures, according to the figures compiled by Dean Runyan Associates.
Tourism Walla Walla Executive Director Michael Davidson said the decrease was not a huge surprise at a time when households were hit by the recession. He said travel into the community was further exacerbated by the post-bailout rollback on out-of-town conferences for many companies.
Nevertheless, the downturn was likely hardest on lodging establishments, he said. With more rooms to fill in 2009, the 5 percent loss was spread among a greater number of businesses, he said.
About 273,000 overnight visitors stayed in Walla Walla in 2009 and spent an average 2.9 days in local lodging establishments.
Other highlights of the report showed that visitors to Walla Walla in 2009 spent:
$17.3 million on lodging
$26 million on food and beverage services
$4.6 million on food stores
$13.6 million on ground transportation and motor fuel
$12.1 million on arts, entertainment and recreation
$12.2 million on retail and
$200,000 on (visitor-only) air transportation
Davidson said 2009 represented the first drop in tourism numbers since 1991, when the data was first compiled and reported.
He said business travel may have been hardest hit. After the federal bailouts of major corporations, more companies scrutinized their business travel. A number of organizations canceled their trips to Walla Walla, he said.
Davidson remains optimistic that next year's figures will improve. As of September, he said hotel revenue is up about 9.6 percent. Room nights sold and occupancy are also up 6 percent each, he said.