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San Juan's early-year tourism stats show slight decline; lodging tax dips

Visitors to the islands spent less in the first six months of 2008, county officials say. But ‘June, July, August catch us up,’ says Deborah Hopkins of the visitors bureau. - Journal photo / James Krall
Visitors to the islands spent less in the first six months of 2008, county officials say. But ‘June, July, August catch us up,’ says Deborah Hopkins of the visitors bureau.
— image credit: Journal photo / James Krall

The local lodging industry will have some ground to make up in order to tally another 12-month period of steady growth.

There are solid reasons to expect that it will, according to Deborah Hopkins, director of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau.

Chiefly, Hopkins noted last week in presenting the bureau’s half-year update to the County Council, is the revenue collected through the local lodging tax in Friday Harbor and San Juan County has historically been greatest in the second half of the year. Gains in summer and autumn could well make up for a drop in local lodging tax revenue by the end of the year, she said.

“June, July and August really catches us up,” Hopkins said. “We’re not panicking by any means.”

Still, Hopkins last week said that soaring fuel prices, negative publicity about the state ferry system and unease over a sagging national economy may account for a dip in hotel/motel tax revenue during the first half of the year. The amount collected in the county and in the town in the first six months of the year, combined, trails the half-year mark of a year ago even though neighboring counties registered slight increases, she said.

County Councilman Kevin Ranker, South San Juan, added that it appears those visiting the islands so far this year, even if the number rivals those of recent years, are spending less.

Despite a load of current economic challenges, Hopkins expects people will make time to travel, though perhaps closer to home, and that the “value” of their vacation will be a top priority for many.

“People are still traveling but they’re looking for value,” she said.

For many, hotel/motel tax revenue acts as a barometer on tourism by tracking the volume of business at local inns, resorts and B&Bs. The 2 percent tax collected by the county for the promotion of tourism increased 23 percent, from $322,000 to $397,000, over the past five years, according to the Visitors Bureau. A similar tax collected by the town rose from $95,000 to $140,000 during that same period.

The Visitors Bureau, established as an offshoot of the Business Association of San Juan County five years ago, has been the promotional agent of the town and the county, via renewal of annual contracts, since the hotel/motel tax was enacted in 2003.

(The county also collects a second 2 percent hotel/motel tax that supports tourism-related facilities, such as historical museums, theaters, public parks and the fair).

Hopkins said the local lodging industry has more on its side than just the calendar. She noted that the number of requests for information about the islands are on the rise in response to the bureau’s spring advertising campaign. Its Web site visits are up 17 percent, e-mail requests are up by 5 percent, and spring ads generated about 6,000 information requests, she said.

In addition, she said recent articles in popular publications, such as Sunset magazine and the New York Times, have helped to boost the islands’ profile among potential tourists domestically and abroad. The San Juans were recently ranked among the top ten places in the nation to celebrate the Fourth of July by MSNBC and are on MSN.com’s list of top 20 “island getaways.”

“Over the past five years, we’ve learned not to jump to conclusions and to wait until January for the end of the year results,” Hopkins said.

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