Tourists spent a record amount of money in Whatcom County last year, according to a new report.
Spending by tourists hit $555.4 million in 2011, a 16.9 percent increase from 2010.
It's the highest annual amount spent in Whatcom County, beating the previous high of $485.6 million in 2008. The authors of the study, Dean Runyan Associates, estimate Whatcom County tourism employment totaled 5,870, up 230 from the previous year.
A major factor in the increase was the rise in Canadian shopping, said Loni Rahm, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism. With lodging occupancy up 8.8 percent compared to the previous year, she noted that Canadian holidays in 2011 meant fuller hotels and motels in Whatcom County, because more time in the U.S. meant Canadians could bring back more into Canada without getting hit with the duty tax.
Also, the significant increase in the number of Canadians flying out of the Bellingham International Airport has meant more hotel bookings.
"We've seen a shift for Canadians, with more making this a destination place rather than a day trip," Rahm said. "Whatcom County is becoming more of a vacation place as well as a place to shop."
Rahm said 2012 is also off to a good start. In addition to the increase in Canadian traffic, hotel bookings are up during what's been significant turnaround work at Whatcom County's two oil refineries this spring. That uptick happened prior to the peak tourism season, which starts in May with the Ski to Sea events, followed by school graduations.
The 16.9 percent jump in one year is unusual for this area. Between 1991 and 2011, the average annual increase was 3.6 percent. According to the report, those employed in the local tourism industry made $119.2 million in wages.
Whatcom's tourism spending ranked fifth highest in the state, behind King, Spokane, Pierce and Snohomish counties.