Whatcom County posted some decent growth in the tourism industry last year, and it already appears to be off to a strong start in 2017.
Last year visitors spent $588 million in Whatcom County, a 3 percent increase compared to 2015, according to a report by Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism. The data was compiled by Dean Runyan Associates, a national tourism research firm.
Whatcom County now ranks fifth in the state for visitor spending after King, Pierce, Spokane and Snohomish counties.
Lodging posted the biggest increase locally, rising 7.6 percent year-over-year to $76.2 million. That went a long way in offsetting the 10.6 percent drop in air and ground travel, a category impacted by the weakening Canadian dollar.
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Lodging is already off to a strong start in the first quarter of 2017, in part because of what appears to be a very busy season for regular maintenance work at local refineries. Officials at the refineries don’t publicly talk about the amount of turnaround work being done, but it has showed up in the hotel bookings, said Sandy Ward, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism.
73.4 percent. The Whatcom County hotel occupancy rate in March. That’s a rate typically seen in May and June.
The occupancy rate for Whatcom County hotels in March was 73.4 percent, up from 58.5 percent in March 2016. February had similar numbers, with a hotel occupancy rate of 73.7 percent, up from 55.6 percent a year earlier. About half of the Whatcom County hotels participate in the survey. The February and March occupancy rates in 2017 are typically seen in May and June, according to the data.
Having that boost in hotel bookings in the first three months of the year is important for the industry, because it is considered a very slow time of year for visitor spending and helps provide job stability in what is typically a seasonal industry. Weather is a factor in spring and summer visitor spending; if it gets warmer and less wet in the coming weeks, it means another boost in visitor spending, Ward said.
The Dean Runyan report estimates visitor spending supported 6,800 Whatcom County jobs last year, an increase of 200 compared to 2015. Visitor spending also generated about $51 million in state and local taxes.
One area of tourism Ward said could use a boost is the airport. For its population size, Whatcom County is lucky to have jet service, she said. With the Canadian dollar, currently at 73 cents compared to the U.S. dollar, expected to remain weak through 2017, it may mean finding ways to attract airplane passengers just south of Whatcom County.