Tourism is a big driver of the local economy and keeps growing. Plus notes on Washington's economic rankings and retail outlook.

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Cruise season began last week with the arrival of Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sun.

The Port of Seattle projects more than 1.1 million cruise passengers this year, ahead of last year’s record. Alaska is the largest destination for cruise ships. Seattle will be the largest cruise port on the West Coast for the second year in a row.

Cruise passengers make up an important part of the tourism economy here, spending money in town before and after their voyages. But they’re far from the only drivers.

Nearly 40 million visitors came to the city and county last year, according to a recent report from Visit Seattle, the 1,000-member nonprofit tourism marketing organization. That’s up 2.6 percent from the previous year and marks the eighth straight year setting a record. Overnight visitors grew by 3.9 percent to nearly 21 million.

Tourism Economics and Longwoods International estimate that visitors pumped $7.4 billion into the regional economy. Travel and tourism jobs were up 27 percent to more than 76,000 (about 5.6 percent of all employment in King County.

Tom Norwalk, president of Visit Seattle, told me the region also “had incredible growth from international business. And this is despite being underserved by international (air) carriers. We’ve been adding (flights) but there is more we can be doing.”

International visitors tend to spend more and stay longer than their domestic counterparts. To encourage growth in tourism from overseas, Visit Seattle has marketing reps in Asia, Europe and Australia.

The organization benchmarks the tourism sector here against 14 other U.S. cities, getting weekly updates.

With long summer days, numerous attractions and the gateway to the Northwest’s scenic beauty, Seattle is a natural destination for tourists. Leisure demand was once seasonal, but now we’re attracting visitors year-round.

Business travel is an important element, too, both corporate and conventions.

Norwalk is hoping a deal can be completed for expansion of the Washington State Convention Center.

“We’re outperforming other destinations for how we utilize the convention center” he said. “But we need the second building… There’s incredible demand for Seattle as a meeting destination. Groups sign contracts for years out.”

Norwalk is a Seattle native who worked in San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C., before coming home. What keeps Norwalk up at night?

One is concern that Seattle get a handle on aggressive panhandlers, street civility, drug use and street campers. Another is a widespread concern in the tourism industry nationally: The off-putting nationalism of the Trump administration.

“Travel can turn on a dime,” he said. “It can be affected by an economic slowdown, trade policies…. Do we welcome people from around the world? Does the environment in the city seem that it doesn’t appreciate business? What’s the experience like on our streets? Are we keeping Seattle’s distinctiveness, that it’s a non-cookie cutter city?”

Economy Notes:

• The website Visual Capitalist used 27 measurements to rank the best and worst state economies. No. 1 is Washington, followed by California, Utah and Massachusetts. Oregon ranked seventh, Idaho 11th and Alaska 46th.

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• Washington ranked 15th among the 50 states and District of Columbia in the Social Capital Index, a project of the Congress’ Joint Economic Committee.

The report says, “Social capital is likely to be ‘greater’ or more productive in families, communities, and organizations with an abundance of close, supportive relationships. Social capital is also likely to be reflected in cooperative activities. Social capital is also reflected in trust in other people, confidence in institutions, mutual generosity, high collective efficacy, and low social disorganization.”

Oregon ranked 13th, Idaho 16th  and Alaska 20th. No. 1 was Utah.

• Marcus & Millichap, the national commercial real-estate brokerage, released a report this week giving Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue high marks despite the national retail headwinds from e-commerce and changing shopping habits.

“A healthy economy is translating into robust performance for retail in Seattle, aided by one of the best job markets in the nation last year,” according to the report. “Strong fundamentals, including vacancies under 3 percent in the city of Seattle and on the Eastside, are outweighing challenges that the sector has been facing recently.

“The flight to safety into well-positioned retail across Seattle remains a driving force of investment activity. High credit single-tenant net-lease properties hold their appeal to a broad pool of investors, including international and institutional capital.”

Maybe. But Chico’s is closing at Pacific Place. The shakeout is far from over.