Our Voice: Tri-City tourism report contains encouraging news

Some people read the recent tourism and economic report as a mix of good and bad news.

That's mostly because fewer conventions were held here, and hotel and motel bookings were down slightly.

But if you look a little deeper, you'll see that tourism is alive and well in the Tri-Cities, and sometimes numbers need some words of explanation to tell the full story.

Sure, there were fewer conventions and sporting events, but the number of people visiting our region remained close to the same as the year before. That means the events are strong and most are growing. That's good for all concerned.

Hotel and motel bookings were down by 6.5 percent last year, but that decline can largely be attributed to the temporary rush of folks needed here to help navigate the $1.96 billion in stimulus money being spent at Hanford in 2011. That created an artificially high comparison.

In our minds, those are business travelers, not tourists. Sure, they may have dined at area restaurants and stayed at local hotels, but their focus was largely on the contracts at Hanford. They came to do a job, not to see the sights and take in the local flavor.

We consider tourists the folks who come here for pleasure, conventions and sporting events, and those are the ones we're most interested in attracting. Hanford business types will come and go as they have for decades, and that's beyond our control.

Of course, Hanford is becoming a tourist destination itself and those visitors will help drive up tourism figures in the future. Registration for tours of the Historic B Reactor start at noon Saturday, and for sitewide tours at 6 p.m. Monday online at hanford. gov/publictours. Available slots for both are expected to fill within a few hours.

But the really exciting news in the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau annual report is this: Visitors spent $392.6 million here in 2012. That's a whole lot of wine sipping, french fry eating and overnighting in our community.

Much of that -- almost $121 million -- was spent at restaurants.

The hotel/motel occupancy rate was 58 percent here in 2012, the second highest in the state.

And the bureau booked 182 events last year. Bureau CEO Kris Watkins said she expects 2013 to be just as good and probably better for events in the Tri-Cities.

One of the biggies -- the Jehovah's Witnesses annual conventions -- will be back, and they draw worshippers from all over the Northwest. If you've tried to find a hotel room here on one of the weekends of their conventions, you'll know they fill up every room in town and then some.

Not being able to find a room frustrates visitors and we don't want that.

But that should soon be a little easier, with three new hotels on the horizon. More available rooms will make the area more attractive for convention business, too.

On a bit longer horizon -- an expansion of the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick would pay off in new bookings for events that need more exhibit space than what's currently available.

The wine industry continues to be a major player in tourism and will become more significant as the infrastructure of tourism-related businesses develops in the years ahead. The industry sees wine lovers who are making the Tri-Cities a destination as well as visitors here for other events who add some tasting rooms to their existing plans.

For us, the report was all good news. We are encouraged by the volume of existing tourism business and the economic benefits associated with it. We expect the future will only get brighter.