By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE (Reuters) - The state of Washington formally shuttered its tourism office on Friday, a move that helps close deep budget deficits but makes it the only U.S. state no longer spending money to attract visitors.
The remaining $2 million expected to fund the tourism office over the next year was cut by a vote of the Washington state legislature in May as part of the budget that Governor Christine Gregoire signed into law on June 15.
Gregoire first proposed ending tourism funding in December, as the state faced a $5.2 billion budget gap.
"It would be incredibly difficult to use taxpayer dollars to support our tourism office, while at the same time make significant cuts to education and health care," Gregoire spokeswoman Karina Shagren said.
"(The governor) is working closely with the private sector to ensure potential visitors continue to know about the attractions and the beautiful natural wonders found in Washington state," Shagren said.
Private-sector marketing efforts are underway by a the nonprofit Washington Tourism Alliance, which has raised about $300,000 of a targeted $15 million toward promoting the state.
A notice on the state's official tourism website urges readers to "stay tuned" to the group's Twitter feed for updates.
According to the website, total direct travel spending in Washington state was $15.2 billion in 2010, a 7.4 percent increase over 2009.
Nationwide, about half of states are shrinking tourism budgets because of tight revenues, while the other half plan to increase funding, said Geoff Freeman, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Travel Association.
The Washington Legislature's decision to slash all tourism funding "is almost unprecedented," he said.
Louisiana's tourism budget, bolstered by British Petroleum funding after that company's oil spill seeped across the Gulf Coast, has increased 69 percent, from about $19 million to $32 million.
Alaska's jumped 60 percent, to $18.7 million. Michigan's increased about 47 percent, to $27.4 million.
"My reaction was 'Those fools. Those dolts. Those idiots,' Colorado Tourism Office director Al White told Reuters in an interview. "They should have learned from our mistakes."
White said Colorado lost one-third of overnight visitors after its tourism office closed from 1993 to 2000, calling that decision "an incredible economic travesty."
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Greg McCune)