Whidbey Island residents this year witnessed how tourism can be a double-edged sword.
Despite a worldwide pandemic, tourists spent more money on the island than ever before. Lodging tax revenue was up a whopping 67% as of July 31, compared to the same time in 2019 — back when pandemics only existed in history and zombie movies.
Similarly, sales tax revenue actually soared in both 2020 and this year. Island County counted more than $1 million in monthly sales tax revenues last month for the first time ever. County leaders expected revenues to decline in 2020, but the opposite happened. The story is the same this year.
On the other hand, county residents have complained about tourists like never before. Long waits in the ferry line, crowds at events, traffic snarls, slow-driving RVs and a lack of available parking makes residents grumpy. Central Whidbey residents, for example, are upset that large numbers of visitors have been camping at Ebey’s Landing, despite the fact that there are no camping spots.
Officials opined that the pandemic aided Whidbey’s tourism economy because many Seattle-area residents were searching for vacations near to home. But it’s a trend not likely to diminish in the future.
Years ago, Whidbey Island leaders focused on diversifying the economy. They talked about how the tourism economy left most workers behind and benefited only a few. Efforts were made, with modest success, to retain and lure businesses that could provide higher-paying wages.
While tourism remains important to the economy, perhaps it’s time to rethink some of the investments and again consider diversification.
The county and municipalities on the island award hundreds of thousands of dollars in lodging taxes each year to chambers of commerce and other organizations to boost tourism, much of which goes to events and marketing.
Lodging taxes, an extra tax hotel guests pay, can only be used for tourism promotion, acquisition of tourism-related facilities or operation of tourism-related facilities.
Instead of spending so much on marketing community events and crowding out the actual community, more money could be spent on long-term, concrete investments related to tourism, such as repairing the Coupeville Wharf, building trails or dredging marinas.
After all, it’s ultimately these things — history, natural beauty and outdoor recreation — that draw people to Whidbey Island.