Pierce County tourism surged in 2019, as it did statewide, before nosediving after the coronavirus pandemic was declared in March this year.

Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier Tourism and Sports unveiled a new organizational name, tagline and advertising look last fall that focuses heavily on the city’s proximity to the mountain.

Visitor spending hit $1.4 billion last year in the county, up 7.9 percent from 2018, according to statistics provided by Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier Tourism and Sports. Pierce County last year reported 9.2 million visitors, which includes overnighters and day-trippers.

Statewide, visitor volume increased 2 percent last year to a total of 110 million visitors, and visitor spending totaled $21.9 billion, up 4.5 percent in current dollars over 2018, according to a report, Economic Impacts of Visitors in Washington State, compiled by national travel research firm Tourism Economics for the Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA).

However, Washington state has experienced a dramatic decline in tourism in 2020 due to the global pandemic, WTA said in a news post last week. Since the beginning of March, visitor spending in Washington has declined by $3.8 billion compared with last year’s figures. Traveler spending in Washington averaged losses of 77 percent over the past 12 weeks. Hotel room revenue declined 72 percent between March 1 and May 23. And in April, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport had a 93.6 percent drop in passenger volume, compared with April 2019, WTA said in its post.

Dean Burke, president and CEO of Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier Tourism and Sports. (File photo)

“Like all of Washington state, tourism in Pierce County saw strong growth in 2019, up almost 8 percent from the previous year,” Dean Burke, president and CEO of Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier Tourism and Sports, said in an email. “But just like the state, it slammed on the brakes this past March.”

Pierce County hotels through the first week of March were enjoying better occupancy than the national average each week, according to STR figures released by Tacoma’s tourism body. That changed in March’s second week, with occupancy dropping to 53 percent, versus 61.8 percent nationwide. That was the same week Gov. Jay Inslee banned large public gatherings, followed a couple days later by closing schools, then closing restaurants and bars, then issuing the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order on March 23.

In the third week of March, Pierce County occupancy dipped to 36.9 percent versus 53 percent nationally, then hit bottom at 33.9 percent in the last week of March versus 30.3 percent nationally. The county’s occupancy, though, beat the U.S. average that week and every week through May 23, according to the latest data available on June 9.

“To people outside this area, we’re best known for our museum district, outdoor recreation, and being the gateway to Mount Rainier, so you can imagine what it looks like when all three go into various stages of shutdown,” Burke said.

“However, while the hotels here have taken a hit worse than any on record, Pierce County still continues to avoid the worst, while some other of our neighbors in the Pacific Northwest haven’t been so fortunate,” he wrote. “By all indications, Pierce County hotels continue to trend well above the national average during this crisis.”

In 2019, tourism accounted for 11,338 jobs in Pierce County and tourism worker income of $331 million, according to Travel Tacoma. Tourism also generated $165.2 million in state and local tax receipts in the county.

Statewide, the tourism industry supported more than 165,000 jobs in 2019, generating $5.7 billion in direct income, WTA said. State and local taxes, generated by direct visitor spending, tallied nearly $2.4 billion in 2019. Each household in Washington would need to be taxed an additional $1,065 to replace the visitor taxes received by state and local governments last year, WTA said.

“Our state’s tourism industry has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” WTA Interim Executive Director David Blandford said in the post. “That impact was sudden and severe in every industry sector and immediately undercut funding for nonprofit destination marketing programs needed to jumpstart economic recovery and sustain jobs.”

While tourism industry jobs represent 3.5 percent of all jobs in the state, the economic activity supported by visitors supports a total of 5.1 percent of all jobs in Washington, WTA said.

COVID-19 has acutely damaged employment in Washington state’s travel sector, according to Tourism Economics’ analysis. Job losses within the leisure and hospitality sector represented 42 percent of all job losses in the state through the end of April. Through the week ending May 16, there had been 1.2 million unemployment claims in Washington. This implies over half a million jobs lost in the leisure and hospitality sector, WTA said.

“Because such a large share of job losses are related to travel, an economic recovery can only come through a restoration of travel to and within Washington state,” said Adam Sacks, President of Tourism Economics.