Investing in tourism a sure way to bring in outside dollars

Bill Virgin’s excellent column on “exporting value” (TNT, 8-25) overlooked a vital part of our economic future: tourism.

A growing economy brings “outside” money to buy goods and services produced here, and tourism is the poster child. People come with money and leave with less. Tourism sells goods and services, yes, but it also sells an experience.

Here are five ways to do it better.

 • Define the Tacoma Experience (or the South Sound Experience, or whatever we call it). Travelers and convention planners understand the Brooklyn Experience or the San Francisco Experience; they know what they’re buying. And it’s more than icons like bridges and cable cars. It’s an attitude, a vibe to use a word from your generation. Our Visitor & Convention Bureau is defining the vibe, but it’s hard work to get it right.

 • Open the borders so potential visitors can see from Gig Harbor across to Mount Rainier, from Lakewood up to Fife. We’ve done a poor job weaving the region into a single experience; instead, each attraction or town or even neighborhood fights its own battle. Check the rack with dozens of brochures; do you see any commonality, any theme among the brochures for tours and hikes and shops?

 • We need clustered retail that isn’t the mall. For conventiongoers, shopping is the most popular form of recreation, and though we have cool museum shops most downtown retail is a little edgy. Conventiongoers don’t buy skater gear, even for their kids. (Look honey, a vomiting skull T-shirt!)

We do have attractive shopping but it’s spread over many miles, tucked away in neighborhoods and invisible to conventioneers and hotel guests.

 • Let’s measure tourism against other economic sectors. The traditional lists of biggest employers almost never include tourism businesses because they’re mostly small shops and restaurants. But we can measure the total economic impact of visitors against the impact of health care or manufacturing or logistics. And we can measure progress, or the lack of it.

 • Invest. If we believe tourism has the potential to be a major part of our economic growth, then we have to invest appropriately. Partly this means infrastructure: streetscapes, signage, public safety. And part of the investment is in marketing. Every community in the country is trying to build its brand. It’s an expensive proposition, just like it’s expensive to expand a factory or dredge port land. But the rewards can be substantial.

The good news? We have the hard parts covered. We have astonishing natural attractions, a world-class cluster of cultural institutions, a rich diversity of food and language, meeting facilities, airport and freeway access. A lot of regions would happily trade.

The trick is to package and promote the Tacoma Experience. So people bring their money and leave with less.

Ken Miller is editor of “The South Sound Users Guide,” a guidebook for Pierce, Thurston and Mason counties.