Like the proverbial bad penny that keeps turning up, tourism in Arlington seems to be an issue nearly as old as the county itself.

The County Board recently appointed several new members to terms on the county Visitors Commission. For the past four years, county officials have repeatedly stressed the necessity of convincing tourists that Arlington is more than a pit stop on the way to Williamsburg and that tourists should spend their money in the county.

The county has sponsored slogan contests to bolster Arlington's image, commissioned contestants' reports convinced the state to put up road signs announcing Arlington's existence, printed hundreds of thousands of brochures and bumper stickers and established a Visitors Commission.

The purpose of all this is to convince tourists that Arlington is a separate entity from the District of Columbia. It is a fact most tourists apparently fail to realize.

"A lot of people from out of town aren't particularly aware of Arlington's existence," said Oliver Merriam, assistant to the county manager and a member of the 12-member Visitors Commission.

The objects of county efforts is tourist dollars, which in recent years have brought Arlington more than $4 million in annual revenues from business license taxes. Officials say that since the county's 25 square miles are almost completely developed, tourism represents one of the few possible "clean" industries.

Besides Arlington Cemetery, the county's attractions - businessmen and officials are quick to point out - include restaurants and 6,000 hotel rooms in 22 hotels and motels a stone's throw from the nation's capital. "Miami Beach has only 7,000 hotel rooms," noted Merriam, who used to work there, "and they promote the hell out of them." Miami Beach also has a beach.

Promotion is something Arlington's hotels and motels, many of them located in Rosslyn and Crystal City, are keen on doing."With Metro, Arlington's access to downtown is excellent," said one commission member and hotel manager. "We say, 'Well, why not stay in Arlington where you don't have to put up with the hassle of downtown Washington and have a first-class hotel room to boot?'"

A slick color brochure put out by the Rosslyn Hyatt House touts its location "at one of the world's most important crossroads."

Wendy Wilkinson is Arlington's first travel counselor. She sits behind a counter in an impressive new county building off Rte. 1 in Pentagon City, across the county from Arlington National Cemetery.

"People who came in here still think they're in Alexandria or Washington," Wilkinson said. "I offer to make hotel reservations for them. If they're staying somewhere way out of Rte. 1 past Mount Vernon, I suggest that they can stay in closer.If they're in the District, we tell them the (hotel and restaurant) taxes are even higher there and that gets a lot of them to stay here."

A 1974 consultant's study recommended that the county also develop some tourist attractions in addition to Arlington Cemetery, which is visited by more than 4 million people each year.

"Aesthetically, Rosslyn has a great deal of appeal," the report noted. Also recommended was the creation of an Indian village on Roosevelt Island, which "has the disadvantage of being legally part of the District of Columbia."

Other promotional possibilities mentioned in the report included the George Washington Parkway and National Airport because "there are large numbers of people who still enjoy 'watching the planes come in.'"

So far it's not clear just how successful these efforts have been, although officials noted that in July Wilkinson made more than 200 reservations in Arlington hotels for tourists.

Hotel managers note that occupancy rates are very high during the week and drop off precipitously on the weekend. So far, commision members, who discuss such things at their monthly breakfast meetings have not figured out how to make Arlington rival White Sulphur Springs as a weekend retreat.

One rather jaded Arlingtonian suggested that the county might consider printing T-shirts with a reversal on the "I'm Not A Tourist - I Live Here" shirt that was popular during the Bicentennial.

"How about," he said grinning. "'I Live Here, But I Wish I Was a Tourist'?"