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Getting Out of the Tourism Box
Unique events, historic landmarks and Main Street models help entice visitors

Photo Courtesy Tom WoltjerThe latest statistics showed an encouraging upswing in the tourism industry: In 2010, spending by visitors increased both nationwide (8.5 percent over 2009, not adjusted for inflation) and in Washington state (7.4 percent). But just like in all other areas, the economy is forcing travelers to rethink their habits and become more frugal in their spending.

“People are simply shopping less. The ‘shop ‘till you drop’ concept is gone. They’re willing to shop if they feel there’s value, and one of the places they’re willing to spend money is experiences,” said Patricia Graf-Hoke, executive director of Kitsap Peninsula Visitor and Convention Bureau.

Local businesses that specialize in experiences or depend heavily on tourists have been implementing new ideas to cater to the experience-minded. Many are creating their own events to attract visitors from beyond the area, and frequently they are two — or three-day affairs that compel people to stay overnight. And in the tourism industry, the “heads in beds” (overnight accommodations) is the ultimate goal, since taxes generated by hotel/motel rentals help fund tourism promotional efforts.

Last year, about 200 people flocked to Hood Canal area in Mason County for a two-day Explore Hood Canal Geocache Bash, an adventure-seeking, family-friendly event catering to geocaching, the latest craze in outdoor adventure. This year, thanks to beefed-up advertising efforts courtesy of a grant from hotel/motel receipts, organizers hope for an influx of 500 people from as far as Oregon and California.

“We did it over two days because we wanted to put heads into beds, as they say,” said David Wagner, owner of Hood Canal Adventures based in Union with his wife, Valerie.

The couple, who offer geocaching through their business, along with kayaking rentals and tours, wanted to find a way to expose more people to the area. This year, they are hoping to get more local businesses involved with special discounts and packages to participants to the second geocache bash, scheduled for Oct. 8-9.

While preparations are in high gear for that event, Wagner is already thinking bigger. Hood Canal Adventures has set its sights on breaking the Guinness World Records for the biggest number of canoes and kayaks in the water at one time. On July 28, 2012 he hopes Washington will snatch the title from Pennsylvania (who set the record in 2010 with 1,619) by placing at least 2,000 canoers and kayakers into the water at Potlatch State Park.

“We’re trying to find ways to generate interest that takes the place of not having a tourism department in the state. We’re trying to think outside the box of traditional tourism,” said Wagner, who’s receiving help from the Shelton-Mason Chamber of Commerce and local lawmakers, among others, in organizing the record challenge.

While organizing the feat has already proved much more involved than he anticipated, Wagner said it’s one way to get recognition for the business while also putting the area on the map. “It’s important for Washington, it’s important for the Northwest, for Mason County — all these areas will get recognition. And we’re doing it with no tourism budget,” he said.

The water is a major draw for the Greater Kitsap Peninsula, and other entities are taking advantage of the uniqueness of the area. In Gig Harbor, the local canoe and kayak team is in the process of planning a symposium for April 2012 to attract competitive paddlers and spectators. The city of Gig Harbor’s tourism department is promoting the area to tourists in conjunction with the event.

“We try to cultivate (various) ideas and encourage the local groups to do the events, and we help them with marketing and targeting media,” said Laureen Lund, the city’s marketing director.

The secret of Kitsap Peninsula’s appeal, including its 200-some miles of coastlines (the second largest shoreline in the state), is steadily being discovered.

“Kitsap County has some of the best paddling in the world. This is a destination for paddlers, and it’s taking time to get the word out to (other businesses) in Kitsap County,” said John Kuntz, owner of Port Gamble-based Olympic Outdoor Center, which sells and rents kayaks and offers classes and tours.

Olympic Outdoor Center launched the annual Paddle Kitsap in 2008, a two-day event that benefits the North Kitsap Trails Association and is marketed nationally and internationally. It attracts paddlers from as far as the East Coast and Canada, and about 70 percent of participants come from outside of the area. While the paddle is all-inclusive — the fee covers meals and overnight camping — it’s on a Friday-Saturday (Aug. 5-6 this year) so many visitors come earlier in the week and stay Sunday to visit area shops and attractions.

The center has also hosted the two-day Northwest Adventure Sports Festival for the past two years (also known as Unleash the Beast) to promote adventure sports, including paddling and mountain biking. This year, about 300 athletes participated in four events and many brought their families along. Kuntz said first-time visitors to the area said things like “fabulous,” “I didn’t know it was here” and “some of the best.”

“Adventure sports athletes are affluent, have some of the best equipment and sometimes participate in teams from businesses and corporations,” he said. “…Port Gamble is what I feel will be the center of adventure sports in Kitsap County if things continue the way they have.”

Port Gamble is a growing attraction not just for adventure sports. There has been an interest in the town’s paranormal aspect. Its regular “ghost walks” book for months in advance, and this will be the second year for Port Gamble to host a Ghost Conference Oct. 28-30. The conference, which will grow from the two days last year to three this October, was inspired by various paranormal groups doing investigations in Port Gamble, and attracted about 70 people last year from as far as Oregon.

The town’s ghostly reputation continues to grow. Already one zombie-themed movie was filmed there, and a second film with a paranormal twist will be filmed in Port Gamble this fall. And the local master of who-dunnit, bestselling author Greg Olsen, is basing his newest book series in the former mill town.

“This could be the next Twilight,” said Shanna Smith, manager of Port Gamble, which is owned and managed by the Olympic Property Group.

Tourism provides about 50 percent of Port Gamble’s economic base, but Smith said promotional efforts focus on much more than paranormal activity. Already a prime destination for weddings, the town is also attractive thanks to its unique history and scenery.

“People come from all over the country… and are surprised to see an entire town intact and pretty rich in history. It appeals to the young and old alike,” said Julie MacAfee, wedding and special events coordinator.

In addition to being designated a national historic landmark, Port Gamble, which was home to the longest-operating mill in the country, is one of a few company-owned towns and has a large concentration of historic homes. OPG organizes historic tours that take visitors into those homes, many of which are not normally open to the public.

“I think there’s the point where people don’t want to go on an amusement park ride, they want to engage their mind,” Smith said.

For those who prefer to engage their mind with cultural experiences, historic landmarks are a major attraction. One of Kitsap County’s major destinations is the Point No Point Lighthouse in Hansville. Owned by the U.S. Coast Guard and operated by the nonprofit Friends of Point No Point Lighthouse, the landmark is located on a scenic beach that is part of a county-owned park. For the weekend tours alone, it attracts 4,000 visitors from all over the world every season.

JoAnn Johnson, president of the Friends organization, said one visitor made the comment that Europe has its castles, while lighthouses are one of the unique attractions around the United States.

“There is something romantic and alluring about lighthouses. There’s a sense of adventure,” she said. “…They are also very integrated into the history of the area.”

People connect with history, and that is part of its draw, said Jennifer Kilmer, executive director for the new Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor. She said the museum has had visitors from at least 25 states and six countries since its opening last year. Some people want to learn about the area’s settlers or events while for others, it’s a form of entertainment.

“Those who are interested in history tend to be more active tourists,” she said. “Those folks tend to spend more per visit and stay for longer periods of time.”

She said tourism is critical to preservation of local history and while local support is important, “regional visitorship” is that extra layer that supports the local community.

The historic element is one of the economic development tools promoted by the Main Street approach. Gig Harbor’s downtown became a designated Main Street in May (the only other one in Kitsap is on Bainbridge Island) and Gig Harbor Historic Waterfront Association Executive Director Mary DesMarais said a community’s character, including its heritage, is a major tourism driver.

The goal of the Main Street approach, then, is to preserve the historic element while promoting economic vitality. One committee also works on events, and the organization is behind the second annual Gig Harbor Wine and Food Festival on Aug. 6, which Lund said has the potential to grow into a major attraction.

“We certainly want locals to come downtown and support their independent businesses,” DesMarais said, “but we also want to attract visitors so we can put heads in beds.”

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