By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Jan Johnson, the proprietor of the Panama Hotel, barely has time to draw a breath as she speaks on the phone to a reporter. Two German tourists want her to park their car for them while they’re at a wedding. A group of students from the Bush School comes in. Another group of 120 Japanese tourists is getting ready to come.
“But I don’t even do tours anymore,” said Johnson, who bought the hotel in 1984, in the center of Seattle’s once thriving Japantown, and refurbished it to its stunning original glory.
“Most tourists are so worried about parking, they keep looking at their watches or have to rush away.”
Thus, the site of what is widely considered the most authentic museum of the Japanese American experience in the region—where Japanese Americans left behind their belongings when they were herded to concentration camps during World War II—is suffering from a major challenge that may threaten its long-term future.
Poor parking policies in the neighborhood—in the entire Chinatown-International District (CID)—discourage tourism.
This, and other concrete problems, is Johnson’s number one concern.
A new city law that is intended to provide “millions in revenue” to the official agency charged with promoting tourism is said, by its proponents, to be on track to help the entire city—including the CID.
“The more people shop at small businesses across the city, the better off neighborhood businesses across the city will be,” said Seattle City Councilmember Sara Nelson, who led passage of the bill, in an interview. “It will benefit all neighborhoods.”
The law, which Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell signed earlier this month, builds on previous tourism campaigns and “calls for a well-rounded approach to tourism, reflecting the city’s continued commitment to bring visitors, residents, workers, families, and more to downtown—which includes the CID,” said Karissa Braxton, senior communications advisor for the mayor’s office, in an email to the Northwest Asian Weekly
Lack of transparency?
But good intentions can go awry when there is no transparency about how money is spent or when the beneficiaries of those funds do not have a seat at the table, say critics.
The new law assesses a charge of 2.3% on 71 participating hotels downtown. All the funds are slated to go to Visit Seattle, the city’s organization to promote tourism.
Both Nelson and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said the organization will promote tourism across the city—and has already done so.
But Visit Seattle’s efforts to promote the CID, to some, appear lacking.
“The city has never promoted tourism here,” said Johnson, in an interview.
Indeed, her concerns seem a world away from the slick marketing and graphics on the Visit Seattle website.
Johnson makes a daily round of cleaning off graffiti from the hotel, keeping the door locked so vagrants won’t steal the century-old fittings to sell for drugs, and trying to assist her guests with parking.
Featuring the CID
Visit Seattle did not respond by an editorial deadline to a series of questions about transparency in their spending process or about marketing that would assure accountability.
The organization’s website mentions some of the CID’s most well-known places, but in an obscure place on its website—at the very bottom.
Harrell’s senior communications adviser, Karissa Braxton, said Visit Seattle has featured many of the CID’s attractions in “almost every one” of its campaigns.
She cited Seattle Museum Month, which featured the Wing Luke Museum and the Seattle Pinball Museum, a “Family Style” series, which featured Hood Famous, and other campaigns. The website also contains links to a Visit Seattle Visitor’s Guide, which includes CID attractions.
Public safety first
But it’s not clear if the campaigns, many of which are apparently internet-based, have had much impact—at least not in areas that appear most pressing.
Members of the CID community, instead, want concrete changes that will transform the litter and violence that plague the neighborhood’s streets more than anything else.
Gary Lee, a member of the CID Safety Council, said the community needs better lighting in streets and alleys, for a starter.
Asked about such concerns, Nelson said it was a given that public safety must be improved as part of this effort.
Both she and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell have both worked to increase funding for law enforcement.
“Nothing happens without public safety,” said Nelson.
But community leaders like Johnson say there are other endemic problems—like parking.
The neighborhood’s parking problems are brought especially into relief on game days or concert days when stadium goers flood the district with cars, parking in areas normally used by restaurant-goers or other visitors.
The urgent need for tourism
Still, it is not unusual for cities to spend money to market themselves as tourist attractions—without using part of those funds for infrastructure changes.
Denver and Austin recently introduced similar laws, taxing hotels to promote tourism.
Especially for a state like Washington, without an income tax, the need for tourism revenue is massive.
Even coming out of the pandemic, while many parts of Seattle are still in shambles, tourist money and jobs have shown signs of recovery.
Last year, 33.3 million visitors came to the region, up 25% from the year before.
They spent $7.3 billion, a jump of 35%.
This did not include the taxes they paid, either, which amounted to $699 million.
Tourism also creates jobs, which increased 5% last year from the year before.
“Tourism is a major economic driver for our region, supporting nearly 61,000 of our neighbors—people who work in lodging, transportation, food and beverage, retail, and recreation,” said Braxton. “The more visitors we bring to Seattle, the more money they spend in our neighborhoods and the more our local economy benefits.”
This is all the more important because the state for many years failed to adequately take advantage of incentives that other states offer. Many books written about Seattle, or with Seattle as a background, were made into movies elsewhere, such as in Vancouver, B.C., since this state lacked the tax incentives to lure filmmakers here.
Even recent efforts to provide $15 million in tax incentives for filmmaking pales beside the amounts offered by states such as Georgia, which offers $1.3 billion in tax credits.
The current effort to promote tourism, called the Seattle Tourism Improvement Area (STIA), at first glance looks promising.
“STIA funds are generated from overnight guests of downtown hotels, however, marketing efforts funded by the assessment rates support the entire city—promoting the diverse offerings and experiences available throughout Seattle and the region. Campaigns encourage consumers to explore Seattle through its neighborhoods, natural landmarks, arts and culture scene, culinary offerings, and more,” said a press release from the mayor’s office.
But Suenn Ho, an urban designer, who has been involved in the New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District in Portland, said that without a transparent process about how the funds are used for marketing, those who need it may be left out of the picture.
The boundaries of STIA, for instance, do not include the full extent of Little Saigon.
Still, Valerie Tran, operations director at the Friends of Little Saigon, said she trusts Visit Seattle to include the neighborhood in any tourism campaign.
“Visit Seattle receives revenue from the Tourism Improvement Area and uses that money to fund tourism citywide. The boundary identifies which hotels get assessed a fee. We don’t think it’s an indication of who benefits from the assessment. Our expectation is that, like the rest of the city, Little Saigon would also benefit from the assessment revenue.”
Moreover, Visit Seattle has already featured at least one business from Little Saigon, “Hello Em,” said Braxton.
But Ho said even seemingly random lines drawn by planners, down the road, can have a big impact.
Developers and investors may arbitrarily take those lines as exclusion zones—and end up putting money only on one side of the boundary.
“An innocent line becomes a dividing line,” she said. “Has anyone taken into consideration that developers and investors may look at this line as a boundary that will affect decision-making about where investment and future development will go? Will there be any unintended negative impacts? If it turns out this way, will small businesses and residents across the boundary line have a say?”
City may need to “massively correct”
Several recent events have not boded well for the city’s commitment to promoting tourism in the CID, according to CID advocates. After the Major League Baseball All-Star Week, from July 7 to 11, merchants in the CID said they had little advance notice, that there were no promotions of the CID, and that traffic flooded the neighborhood from the games, preventing regular customers from coming.
Lee said the city did, indeed, clean up the district in advance of the event.
“Hopefully, that will continue and make the CID a safe and attractive place to be,” he said.
Nelson said the city will have to learn from any past failures.
“If the Major League Baseball All-Star Week had a negative impact, we need to massively correct in advance of all events such as the FIFA games, using the lessons we learned from the baseball games,” she said.
Seattle is scheduled to host the FIFA World Cup in 2026.
The recent Taylor Swift concert had a similar effect—clogging up the CID with traffic and leaving it worse off than before, said Lee.
When will fees drive tourism away?
The 71 participating hotels are all in downtown neighborhoods, and each has more than 60 rooms. Braxton said there were no hotels in Little Saigon that met the inclusion criteria.
It was also not clear how far the city could go in adding additional fees onto tourists before it reached a tipping point, where the higher prices end up dissuading tourists from coming.
John Findlay, a professor of history of the North American West and the Pacific Northwest at the University of Washington, said Boston is facing similar challenges.
“My wife and I recently rented a car in Boston, and we were amazed at the fees, taxes, etc. tacked on to our rental car bill. Does anyone ever speak up on behalf of tourists? Do hotel owners or restaurants complain because at some point or level, such taxes drive away business and become too much?” he said in an email.
Marketing versus preservation?
At the Panama Hotel, as one load of tourists left and another arrived, Johnson finally had to put down the phone. The hotel is one of two National Historic Landmarks in the region. Some people were there to take pictures of a brick wall preserved from just after the great fire of 1889. “How do we know it’s from then? Because there are shells in the bricks,” said Johnson. “But I have to keep putting sealant on the bricks to preserve them from graffiti. If bricks can’t breathe, they turn to powder. That’s what’s happening right now.”
Nelson couldn’t agree more.
The city owes more to the CID than thinking of it simply as a tourist draw, she said—it should support it as one of its most vulnerable areas.
“Too much, the CID gets dumped on for all the city’s problems,” she said, mentioning the freeway, which transects and pollutes the neighborhood, homelessness, and public safety issues.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.