The latest numbers show travel spending almost reached pre-COVID levels in 2021. However, loss of momentum is what’s keeping new dollars from coming in.
Recognizing the struggle to regain ground due to COVID, the Bellingham is offering a small solution that could have a big payoff, attract more visitors and an economic boost to the area. The city has $300,000 available for grant opportunities to bring in new events, programs and cultural activities. The grants will be provided in 2023 once applications are approved.
Amy Guerra is the marketing director for Visit Bellingham | Whatcom County, an economic development organization promoting all things great about the community. The group also tracks tourism dollars. Guerra said the impacts of the pandemic weakened a huge part of the area’s economy structure.
"In 2019, direct spending from tourists was $555 million. So, that’s a massive impact on our economy, and it dropped down to $380 million in 2020. We rebounded last year to $527 million, but we were on track—the way that was increasing year over year, we should have been over $600 million," said Guerra.
There’s a reason why tourism is a half-billion dollar industry in Bellingham: location.
"This corridor—the water is on this side of it. So, you get the activities that are organized around the bay. So whether that is going out sailing, or whether that’s just beautiful sunset seaside dining, staying at a resort with a balcony that looks out over the water, there’s so much to do here," said Guerra.
Visit Bellingham is a close partner with the City of Bellingham to bring in new events and programs to the area. Guerra said those who apply for the city’s grant opportunities would be in good company. Events like the Bellingham Bay Marathon, Wild Buffalo, Bellingham Festival of Music, Bellingham Bells and Ski to Sea Race were supported by city grants and have grown to be some of the most popular attractions in the area.
"We also have over 40 professional races that happen here in the summer. I don’t think people realize that. We are a huge outdoor race hub and that has been building thanks to some of this grant money," said Guerra. "Visitors can enjoy when they come and do those events, and that we locals can enjoy an economic recovery for right now."
The COVID recovery could be even greater if more events were held at Mount Baker Theater, a historic landmark that Guerra said always generates tourism dollars.
"It’s got a 1,500-seat venue in it. When we bring in big touring shows, that’s usually more than we can fill from Bellingham. About a third of the people that go Mount Baker Theater on a regular basis are from out of town. So, that out of town revenue combined with our local passion for saving this historic building and having the arts, the money comes together and it makes it sustainable," said Guerra.
Online applications for the city’s grant opportunities are will be accepted through Aug. 19 by 12 p.m. Questions regarding this grant program should be directed to Shannon Taysi, Planning & Community Development, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (360) 778-8360.