Seattle's Tourism Transformation

MSNBC: Twenty years ago, Seattle was a quiet Northwestern city, notable for its timber and aviation industries as well as its starring role in the 1962 World’s Fair, where it unveiled the iconic Space Needle. But not much happened in the intervening decades to capture the nation’s imagination – or the interest of travelers.

Then grunge happened. The emergence of the band Nirvana, and its angry punk-pop album ‘Nevermind,’ 20 years ago this month changed the city as a destination.

In 1991, Seattle drew 6.1 million visitors who spent $1.6 billion. Since then, tourism has grown steadily, reaching 9.3 million visitors and $5.5 billion in spending last year. While grunge threw the spotlight on Seattle, the attention only grew as coffee culture and movies like "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Singles" gave the city color it didn’t have before, says David Blandford, vice president of communications for Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“When you look at the '90s and what came from some of those phenomena,” Blandford says, “people began to understand what it was like to live here and visit.”

For several years, though, local politicians fought the thriving music scene through ordinances, afraid that its aggressive roots would tarnish efforts to portray Seattle as a world-class destination. “The city leadership really didn’t like [grunge],” says James Keblas, director of Seattle’s office of film and music.

Anti-establishment residents weren’t clamoring for grunge to become a part of Seattle’s image, either. “When grunge exploded, people really turned away from it here,” Keblas says. “It’s taken a while for Seattle to own that identity and be proud of it and to capitalize on it in interesting ways.”

That slow embrace is now a tight grip, making the city’s musical heritage a big part of any visit. The Experience Music Project, which opened in 2000 and has become a popular Seattle attraction, is named after one of Seattle native Jimi Hendrix’s bands. The pop music museum is marking the 20th anniversary of ‘Nevermind’ with a yearlong exhibition featuring Nirvana memorabilia and photography.

In 2005, the city introduced maps pinpointing historic music sites, including the Black Dog Forge, a blacksmithing studio where the bands Pearl Jam and Soundgarden rehearsed. Also on the maps are sites that recall the city’s musical history pre-grunge, like the Trianon Ballroom, which hosted jazz-era orchestras led by Vic Meyer and Gay Jones and the Black & Tan Club, a jazz club where Ray Charles, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington performed.

The city’s musical legacy has become such an important part of luring tourists that the downtown boutique Hotel Max decorated the doors on one floor with iconic images of grunge bands taken by local photographer Charles Peterson.

But if there’s a true benchmark of Seattle’s transformation into a conventional tourist destination, it’s the Hard Rock Café that opened in February 2010. The restaurant replaced a coin-operated peep show steps away from Pike Place Market. True to the city’s ethos of activism and originality, though, this franchise of the global chain features reclaimed wood and memorabilia from local bands and performers.

Seattle hasn’t just capitalized on its musical heritage in the past decade; it has also taken advantage of new cruise terminals. In 1999, the city’s port welcomed just 6,600 cruise passengers. In 2010, that number had reached 931,000, thanks to two new terminals, one opened in 1999 and the other in 2009. Each time a homeport ship docks, it contributes $1.9 million to the local economy, according to the Port of Seattle.

The city also has more to offer those visitors than it did 10-plus years ago. Randy Hurlow, vice president of communications and marketing for the Downtown Seattle Association, says a “renaissance” began in the heart of the city starting in the early 1990s, which grew with an influx of money from employees at companies like Microsoft and “It started to snowball,” says Hurlow. ( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBCUniversal.)

Benaroya Hall, home to the Seattle Symphony, opened in 1998. That same year, the city’s voters approved an initiative to spend $290 million on the Seattle’s libraries; in 2004, the flagship library, formerly a concrete box, reopened as a steel-and-glass architectural marvel. Four years ago, the Seattle Art Museum opened a free waterfront sculpture park featuring works by Alexander Calder and Louise Bourgeois.

Add to that a downtown retail district that includes shops like Nike Town, Tiffany & Co. and Michael Kors as well as restaurants that are competitive with the best haunts in San Francisco, Chicago and New York, and the Seattle of 2011 might bear little resemblance to that of the grunge era.

But Hurlow isn’t worried that Seattle has lost the character that made it famous.

“I think we have some of the grittiness that cities are known for,” he says. “It is still there and I don’t know if we ever want that to completely go away.”


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