Sunday, May 12, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle, U.S.A. -- It's An Adventure -- Emerald City Is In Vogue As A Destination Point For Foreign Travelers

Seattle Times Business Reporter

Jill Groves typifies the kind of visitor on whom Seattle's tourism industry hangs its hopes for the future.

She's active. She's extended her stay here to 10 days. And she's British. On her fourth jaunt to the United States, Groves was finally discovering Seattle.

The 37-year-old Groves had just come from Vancouver, B.C., but she had a confession to make: "Seattle's my favorite."

"It's like a city with a heart," she said. "I think there's a lot more here to do than people would imagine," Groves said, ticking off her plans to make a pilgrimage to Jimi Hendrix's grave, tour the Microsoft campus and visit Roslyn, Kittatas County, where the television show "Northern Exposure" was filmed.

In case you hadn't noticed, there's a new kind of tourist afoot in Seattle. The British are coming. So are the Germans, the Japanese and the Australians.

Even with a lull in tourism in 1993, the number of overseas tourists visiting Seattle has been on the rise in the past several years. The number of overseas visitors to Seattle jumped 26 percent from 1993 to 1994 to 423,000 people. More than half were from four countries: Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia, with Japan sending the largest number.

And as global tourism continues to increase, there's potential for many more to visit, leaving their pounds-, yen- and marks-turned-dollars.

Having tasted the future's possibilities, local and state officials now view international tourism as the most important future segment of the industry.

But Seattle and Washington need to capitalize on their current vogue, because that popularity won't last forever without nurturing, said Pollard and other tourism officials.

"If you don't constantly remind people of what we have here, people are going to go elsewhere," she said.

Tourism has become a $3 billion industry in King County, and accounts for almost half of the state's total tourism revenue, said Steve Morris, president of the Seattle-King County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But international travelers, now an important part of this area's tourism mix, are getting harder to reach. While other nations such as Australia are boosting their advertising budgets, the federally funded U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration, which marketed the United States worldwide, closed its doors in April.

On the state level, Washington ranks 46th in the nation in the amount of money spent on tourism promotion, even counting a recent increase from $2 million to $3 million in the 1996 Tourism Development Program budget.

"We're up against some big bucks, including our neighbor to the north, in going after a piece of the market," Pollard said.

Ironically, Seattle and the state have become hugely popular with overseas visitors almost in spite of the underfunded tourism efforts, officials said.

"Sleepless in Seattle," a big hit in Japan, and television's "Frasier," which has a big following in the United Kingdom, have probably done more to attract tourists from those countries than any marketing, they said.

Last year was "the best year for Seattle's visitor industry we've ever had," said Morris. Though 1995 statistics aren't yet available, "we're expecting the volume of sales represented by visitors to be up 12 percent," he said.

In 1993, overseas travelers spent an estimated $420 million in the state and were responsible for supporting 14,000 Washington state jobs.

"The industry is clearly undervalued in the state, and at the same time it's one of the major economic success stories in the long term," said Morris, whose bureau is part of a loose tourism coalition that includes the Port of Seattle and the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development.

As a result, local and state tourism officials are learning to play to the region's strengths and bolstering its weaknesses.

One trend to which Seattle and Washington must adapt is that most of its overseas tourists aren't first- or even second-time visitors to the United States, analysts said.

"Travelers are becoming more sophisticated," said B.J. Stokey, tourism development manager for the Port of Seattle. "They've been to Florida two, three times. They're tired of it."

These tourists now want "authentic experiences," Stokey said. And they find those experiences by eating the local foods and learning about the Native American experience at Tillicum Village. But the biggest seller is outdoor adventure.

"That is where we stack up absolutely with the best," said Don Lorentz, director of the Port's Economic and Trade Development Department.

Germans tourists, who make up about 11 percent of the state's overseas visitors, are particularly attracted by the area's outdoor possibilities.

"The Germans have almost this emotional attitude toward Mother Earth," said Clint Hyde, a travel-industry marketing manager for the state. They're also fascinated by the American West and its cowboys-and-Indians mystique, Hyde said.

As a result, marketing efforts in Germany and England mainly tout "soft adventure" packages, which mix sea kayaking or other activities with stays in downtown Seattle.

Officials also have tried to capitalize on research showing that, while British and German tourists often take two- or three-week vacations, they use Seattle chiefly as a "gateway," or jumping-off point, for larger explorations of the Pacific Northwest and southern British Columbia.

"We're not so naive to think that a visitor is going to stop at a state border," Pollard said. Instead, states have tried to pool their limited resources and make the region's multiple attractions work in their favor.

One example is Washington's $50,000 contribution to produce, along with Recreational Equipment Inc. and the Idaho and Oregon tourism departments, a booklet of regional adventures aimed at REI's 250,000 Japanese customers. These customers interested in adventure travel represent a small, but growing, market.

Tourism officials from around the region also will meet here next month for the Cascadia Tourism Conference, which is aimed at marketing a "two-nation vacation" abroad.

When foreign tourists do stop in Seattle, the goal of tourism officials is clear: Make them linger and spend their money.

Shopping options downtown and in nearby outlet malls have served that purpose well. The Downtown Seattle Association estimates that tourism accounts for almost half the retail sales in the city's core. Tourist dollars have made possible the much talked-about plans for downtown, Morris said.

But shopping isn't everything. Visitors to a foreign land also want to feel comfortable. Those needs have not always been met in Seattle, according to a 1993 survey of foreign visitors published in Washington CEO magazine.

Though respondents gave the city good ratings overall, they were disappointed by the city's lack of multilingual bus information and by the absence of currency-exchange services.

The survey also noted that, in a city where two-thirds of foreign visitors surveyed said they require translation services, only 38 percent rated existing services "good."

A few small improvements have appeared. One is a currency-exchange kiosk in Westlake Center, to serve the downtown shopping center's estimated 3 million international visitors. But most observers say few other steps have been taken.

Those small touches can have big reverberations - especially as Pacific Rim businesses continue to grow and open foreign offices, said Bill Stafford, executive director for the trade development alliance at the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

"These people are potential business decision-makers, government decision-makers," he said of many travelers from abroad.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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