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Signs hopeful for Yakima Valley tourism

YAKIMA - Following a year of recession and economic decline in 2008, Yakima Valley merchants are looking to 2009 for any sign of hope they can find in sustaining tourism to our region.

John Cooper is the president and CEO of the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau and yesterday provided a realistic, yet hopeful look at the Valley's tourism prospects for 2009.

Cooper's comments came during a tourism outlook meeting held Tuesday at the Yakima Convention Center.

The so-so news, he told a crowd of mostly winery and hospitality industry representatives, is that leisure travel to the Yakima Valley is expected to decline by about 1 percent in 2009, mirroring state and national trends. That's not bad, he added, considering how far the national economy has declined.

The biggest decline in tourism is expected to be in international travel, with a drop of 3 percent predicted. Along with that trend, Cooper said, is a move by many to take trips and vacations closer to home.

As a result, Yakima Valley merchants may not see as many visitors from Europe or Asia - there aren't that many now, Cooper concedes - but they'll likely greet more guests from Portland, Ore. or Vancouver, B.C.

"There are six million people within a day's drive from the Yakima Valley," Cooper said.

All of which means the good news is that in the long term, perhaps starting in 2010, the Yakima Valley should start seeing an uptick in regional visitors.

Cooper said later that he is hearing reports that already tourists are foregoing longer drives to Walla Walla and instead coming to the Yakima Valley for wine tours and purchases.

That's good news to Shannon Bird of the Rattlesnake Hills Wine Trail, which features 16 Valley wineries.

"Visits to the wineries dropped about 8 percent last year," she said.

But even then, there's a sign of hope for stability in the Yakima Valley tourism and winery industries.

Bird said that despite fewer visitors last year, "our wine sales remain static." That means that there has not been a drop in the amount of wine sales.

Bird said she's not sure how people are still buying the same amount of wine as before with fewer visits, but offered that perhaps tourists are buying more wine when they do visit the Valley.

Sunnyside's Jacob Van Pelt is the director of sales for the Best Western Inn at Horse Heaven in Prosser. He says there's still much to like about tourism in the Lower Valley.

"We set a record last year for stays at our hotel," he said. "Now we just have to make a good impression on them (visitors) to keep them coming back."

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