Preliminary figures released today by the Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA) indicate that tourism in Washington State improved slightly in 2014, but inconsistently throughout various counties in Washington and comparatively slower than the state’s overall taxable sales growth.“The research underscores the importance of maintaining the WTA’s current marketing programs,” said WTA Board Chair Cheryl Kilday. That includes the Washington State Visitors’ Guide, destination web site, call center and international marketing, as well as the need for a long-term, industry led and funded tourism marketing program.Direct visitor spending in Washington was $19 billion in 2014, up 5 percent over 2013, according to preliminary data compiled for the WTA by Dean Runyan Associates in the report State Travel Impacts & Visitor Volume 1991 -2014. This compares with 7.1 percent growth in overall state taxable sales during the same period, according to figures released by the Washington State Department of Commerce earlier this month.WTA’s new research also reported on tourism employment and tax revenue. The travel and tourism industry supported more than 163,400 jobs in 2014, up 2.7 percent from 2013. Local and state travel-generated tax revenue was $1.7 billion, representing roughly 5 percent of all state and local tax revenues and generating $600 in tax revenue for each Washington household.“Robust worldwide travel, combined with the individual tourism marketing investments of the state’s major cities, port districts and private sector companies, have helped buoy our industry for the past four years since the state tourism office closed,” said Kilday“We’re also grateful for some interim funding from the legislature the past two years which has helped sustain our state visitor guide, web site, visitor call center and other essential visitor services. This support, in conjunction with the nation-wide travel and tourism growth trend, has been absolutely critical to keeping Washington tourism alive until our industry funding plan can be deployed.”Nevertheless, WTA officials worry about loss of tourism market share in the absence of a legislatively approved, industry funded long-term marketing program. “Our latest research illuminates the disparity in tourism impact in eastern and western Washington,” said Kilday. “Annual spending growth for the eastern state counties was 3.1 percent, versus 5.5 percent for the western counties. Employment growth was 1.3 percent for eastern, 3.1 percent for western.”“Seattle, Spokane and other destinations with local tourism promotion areas (TPAs) have raised marketing funds to offset the closure our state tourism office three years ago, but research continues to suggest that this cumulative return is not enough for our state as a whole,” said Kilday. “Our tourism marketing investment must be statewide to make a broad impact.”Senate and House bills supporting WTA’s tourism marketing funding plan were introduced in Olympia this session with significant support, but ran out of timefor approval. Plans are underway to continue the approval process in the next session.Since the closure of the state tourism office in 2011, the private, non-profit, industry-led WTA has operated on a minimal budget. In 2013, the State Legislature approved short-term interim funding of $500,000 in each year of the 2014-15 biennium to pay for the basics of a state tourism marketing program.The results of that minimum investment indicate that there has been a positive impact on visitation and spending in 2014. Traffic to the Experiencewa.com website produced 154,500 partner referrals in 2014 and traffic to the site increased 26 percent over 2013, with more than 581,500 visitors and over 1.7 million page views. And 2015 is showing growth as well, with 173,000 visits to the site in January - March alone. The WTA call center receives over 500 calls and email inquiries a month and personnel assist travelers in planning their Washington State visits. And thanks to the state investment in these interim funds, more than 300,000 Washington State Visitors’ Guides were distributed for free to prospective visitors.“We hope that our interim funding will continue until the WTA can rely on a long-term funding framework that assesses key sectors of the tourism industry,” said WTA Executive Director Louise Stanton-Masten. “With the growth that we’ve seen with our minimum funding investment, we’re looking forward to seeing the positive impacts of a more adequately funded program. It is critical to help keep Washington competitive in a particularly competitive industry.”Competing western state tourism budgets ranged from $7-$50 million last year. Comparatively, WTA had a $481,000 budget in 2013 and a $1.1 million budget in 2014 which included the State’s investment in interim funding. The WTA began work with a budget of some $300,000 when the state tourism office closed in mid-2011, successfully established incremental funds through membership and corporate sponsorships and in 2013 secured state short-term funding to underwrite the basics of a marketing program in 2014 and 2015. Funds were allocated to the state’s consumer travel web site, postage for distributing the Washington State Visitors’ Guide, operation of a travel call center, international marketing and research.