Water sports bring economic boost to Kitsap County

When most people hear the term “water trails” they think about folks in man-powered boats. They think kayaks, canoes and paddle boards. But the Kitsap Water Trails, and its designation as part of the National Water Trails system, means much more.

According to local officials and business owners, having that designation, and being part of the National Water Trails and the Washington Water Trails Association, means tourism dollars and a boost to the local economy.

Patricia Graf-Hoke, executive director of Visit Kitsap Peninsula, the region’s official tourism development agency, said it means national and even international attention and the opportunity to attract more outdoor recreation visitors.

“Over the past few years Visit Kitsap Peninsula has successfully generated some excellent national coverage for the Kitsap Peninsula Water Trails including the most recent article in Canoe & Kayak which also named Poulsbo among the Best Paddling Towns in North America,” Graf-Hoke said. “Our goal is to attract kayakers from all around the USA and the world.”

In May 2014, the U.S. Department of Interior, approved Kitsap County’s application to have the Kitsap Peninsula Water Trails added to the National Water Trails System. Since then, the Kitsap Peninsula Water Trails has been featured many times in outdoor publications, National Park publications and local, regional newspapers.

“The national designation of the Kitsap Peninsula Water Trails has generated significant exposure for the region and is a big boost for our reputation as a major destination for outdoor recreation activities,” she said. “While much of the focus of the water trails tends to be on paddling, it also includes other water related activities including sailing, stand-up paddle boards, tribal canoes, outriggers, boating and fishing.”

Kitsap already is a popular destination for cycling, mountain biking and marathons, she said. The national designation of the Kitsap Peninsula Water Trails continues to provide another opportunity to build on the region-wide brand identity, the “Natural Side of Puget Sound,” that Visit Kitsap has been promoting since 2009, Graf-Hoke added.

Graf-Hoke was one of 16 industry leaders appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee to a Blue Ribbon Task for Parks & Outdoor Recreation. The Task Force was charged with looking at the economic impact of outdoor recreation and short and long-term funding strategies. To help identify the economic benefits of outdoor recreation, waterways and parks, Washington State hired Earth Economics to conduct a study and prepare a report which was released in 2015.

Key findings in the report showed that recreation associated with “public waters” generates the highest expenditures. Other findings in the report indicate that $21.6 billion is spent every year in Washington state on outdoor recreational trips and equipment across all recreational land those expenditures generate about $20.5 billion in state economic contributions. Washington residents average 27 visits per year to local parks, making local parks the most visited land type for outdoor recreation.

The Earth Economic report ranked Kitsap fourth in the state in employment with 6,700 jobs attributed to outdoor recreation, and sixth with $700 million in sales and expenditures related to outdoor recreation activities and visitors.

The Visit Kitsap Peninsula board decided in 2009 to make Kitsap’s natural environment and outdoor recreation assets a primary focus of its focus its branding, marketing and tourism strategy. Since it didn’t have the advantage of mega hotels, sport complex or large conference center, the board decide instead, to take advantage of the region’s close proximity to Seattle/Tacoma and the Eastside (Bellevue) metro area and target urban employees and dwellers.

“The Earth Economic’s study and the national water designation definitely validates the VKP’s decision to target outdoor recreation visitors,” said Graf-Hoke. “It’s a logical way to help diversity in the economy and help hoteliers increase sales among leisure travelers which have more disposable income and can pay higher room rates versus government travelers which are capped at a lower per-diem rate.”

It’s a strategy that appears to be reaping positive results for local government and hotels, she said. According to recent Smith Travel Reports, lodging revenues for Kitsap County have increased more than 15 percent over the past two years and in some cases up 23 percent month to month.

Jim Rothlin, CEO Port of Bremerton, said the port wants to be a part of water recreation activities because that enhances the marinas it oversees.

“The Port strongly supports the efforts of the water trails events and have met with the group to discuss ways the Port can contribute,” Rothlin said. “I appreciate the vision to make this an event that is visited annually by travelers from all over. We are working on providing facilities to help with the promotion of the water and non-water events. The success of this event creates more interest in the beautiful surroundings our county has to offer, increases our economic viability and who knows, maybe even sparks interest in moving more business to the area to create more jobs, which is our ultimate mission.”

And, the water trails are being enjoyed by more than boaters. It’s spawning improvements to docks and marinas along its route that are also used by day hikers and those who fish. And it’s increased the number of folks who enjoy other water sports such as scuba diving and underwater photography, local business owners said.

Poulsbo is also stop along the water trails that benefits.

“It can’t be anything but good for the town, if it helps promote the water and use of the water,” said Brad Miller, director of the Port of Poulsbo. “If those visitors shop and eat and stay in Poulsbo, that definitely will have a positive impact. The Poulsbo Marina has been a popular launching point for kayakers for many years, and will remain so for many more to come.”

Jerry Rowland, manager at the Port of Brownsville, is a fan of the water trails, too.

“It’s bringing more people to Kitsap County,” he said. “Instead of this being the place they travel through to get to somewhere else, they’re stopping and enjoying the view of our countryside from the water.”

While the Brownsville dock is small and doesn’t have a lot of amenities, he said he’s seeing more people use it as a place to launch their kayaks or stop off for a rest while kayaking.

“I’m excited about it,” he said. “It’s great that it is happening.”

Another small town that has been helped by the water trails is Tracyton. Two years ago, the Port of Tracyton did work to its dock and added a rest area for kayakers. There are picnicking areas nearby and a small grocery store and a pub. It is one of the stops along the way on the Kitsap Water Trails map.