Seattle trying to do more with less in wooing tourists

SEATTLE -- Coming off a record year for tourism in Seattle and King County, the bureau in charge of running convention business and tourism is putting new strategies in place to boost travel further both near and far.

Last year featured 10.2 million visitors to the area -- good for the second-best hotel occupancy on the west coast and netting $6 billion into Seattle and King County's economy.

Several major events helped bring in the tourists: The Space Needle turning 50, the opening of the Chihuly glass exhibit, King Tut coming to the Pacific Science Center and the arrival of the Space Shuttle trainer at the Museum of Flight.

We can also thank conventions and international travel.

"Overseas visitors from China, Japan -- all over Asia and plus what's happening in Europe has been a steady increase for Seattle," said Tom Norwalk, the CEO of Visit Seattle. "I think our Chinese business was up 35 percent."

But with no state tourism board -- shutdown in the recession -- the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau has just $16 million a year to promote the region. That's peanuts compared to California's $50 million and British Columbia spending $60 million.

"So there's more pressure on Visit Seattle to do a more comprehensive job to bring visitors in," Norwalk said.

To refocus its effort, the bureau changed its name to "Visit Seattle" and launched a new leisure strategy called "2 Days in Seattle". The idea is to get more travelers on the West Coast to Jet City.

Visit Seattle hopes that means more state funding will kick in to help. Norwalk says Seattle is more popular but still has a stigma to overcome.

"I think there is an element of unfamiliarity about where we are geographically, what the weather's like," Norwalk said. "Blankets in February don't really help."

Other issues posing a challenge are high gas prices and even the budget sequester that could negatively impact travel this year.

But another ray of sunshine is that Seattle and King County area turning away more convention business because it's booking all it can handle.