The Tourism Issue

Tourism - Pilot Butte Motor Court

This summer seems to have been the tipping point for tourism in Bend—namely, that we are starting to see backlash against the number of tourists and the possibility is being raised that too much tourism is a bad thing for Bend. Not that local negativity against tourism is a new thing, but it’s really the first time I can remember it being publicly discussed as much as it has been in recent months.

Now that we’re past Labor Day (the end of the summer tourist season) and well into fall, school is back in session, and the town is palpably quieter and less busy, let’s take a closer look.

The boilover started with this June blog post by Katy Bryce: Bend Is Being Loved to Death – And It’s My Fault. Just in her second paragraph the problem becomes apparent:

What I’m actually dreading is waking up to find beer cans in the street in front of my house. Or coming across a woman who is passed out on lawn in front of Nosler (yes, the bullet factory) after a hard night of partying. The “Freedom Ride” that occupies Columbia Park, four houses away from me? I can’t even go there. Then, this morning, on my walk with my dog along the river, I saw piles of rubbish that rivaled third world countries.

The Source picked up on that and ran a feature in July that gave some key background and points: Too Many Tourists? (July 20)

Visit Bend, the city’s primary tourism promotion organization, commissioned a study of how many people visited in 2015. It estimated that 2.5 to 3 million visitors came and stayed an average of 2.4 days. That works out to 6 to 7.25 million visitor nights over the year.

To put that in perspective, almost 20,000 people visited Bend every day of the year on average. Bend’s resident population is only about 87,000 people.

The city has about 3,500 hotel and motel rooms. Last year, visitors nearly filled them all in July, when occupancy was at 90 percent of capacity. Those figures don’t account for the 654 active short-term rental licenses on file with the City, which represent AirBnB and other short-term rentals.

Visit Bend President Kevney Dugan suggested that if more tourists come, the lodging industry would likely build more rooms. “Hotel developers see an opportunity,” he said.

Spokespeople for Visit Bend, Central Oregon Visitors Association and Travel Oregon, the three main organizations that promote Bend and Central Oregon tourism, all declined to say if any number of tourists would be too many. They have no plans to dial back their marketing, especially of the shoulder seasons.

(Emphasis mine.) So it’s a safe bet to say that during the summer months, we’re seeing at least 20,000 tourists per day in Central Oregon.

The lodging numbers are telling, but don’t tell the whole story since those are only the ones for which Visit Bend receives money, from the Transient Room Tax. Keep in mind there are people staying in the neighboring towns and resorts, not to mention campgrounds and RV parks.

This Source article continues with much detail about the “hidden” costs of tourism, as well as how much Transient Room Tax income is actually earned. (Estimated at $7.5 million this year.) Important point: “nearly 20 percent of summer employment is in leisure and hospitality.” And it’s important to note, 35 percent of that tax money goes to tourism promotion—as mandated by state law.

The Bulletin followed with What brings people to Bend? Tourists weigh in (August 1). Pretty standard piece, what you’d expect, though they preface with some numbers:

An estimated 2.49 million to 3.04 million people visited Bend in 2015, according to a report from Bend’s tourism website, Visit Bend. Although locals are often frustrated with the amount of traffic tourists bring and busy parks, trails and restaurants, visitors have their own reasons for coming to Bend and spent $791 million in Central Oregon during 2015, according to the 2015 Oregon Travel Impacts report.

The Source runs an article on Bend’s growth rate, which isn’t directly related to tourism but does highlight the city’s growth issues (which have been a topic for years). Bend’s Growth Rate: Scary or Sustainable? (August 10)

This line stuck out to me: “Despite how it might feel, Bend’s infrastructure is holding up to growth, according to city planners.” I disagree. You only have to try driving out of the Old Mill District at the end of the business day to get a strong sense of how population and traffic growth outpaced planning. Or the sewer line; you only have to look at the necessity of the sewer line projects to see that there is infrastructure not holding up—basically we outgrew the sewer system. I’m glad to see it being addressed now, but it should have been started years ago when we first had the inklings this was a problem (early 2000s? 1990s? I was hearing talk as early as 2005 I think).

But this is to be expected for a city that, in the span of 20 years, more than tripled in population (from 20,469 in 1990 to 76,639 in 2010). Current growth rates are pegged at 3% annually.

The Bulletin: Bend’s tourism increase generates complaints (August 14).

Not much to comment on here, other than to say, anyone who moved here in 2005 looking for “small town feel,” with growth in full swing even before the housing market took off, really should not complain when the town kept growing.

The Bulletin: Bend is trying to deal with tourists — but it isn’t the only one (August 23).

Interesting points here. I’m not really sure about this “Visit like a Local” campaign that Visit Bend is developing, or this concept of “voluntourism” as it applies to Bend. (Traveling to another country to build schools (as “voluntourism”) is a far cry from coming to Bend to pick up trash on trails.)

The Source editorial: Tourism is Here to Stay (August 24).

This is a good wrap-up and overall editorial. The important bits:

One of the first slides in the [City Club] presentation posed the question: Is tourism worth it?

While it might seem like a valid question—and one that’s bandied about among both recent transplants and longtime Benditos—in reality, the point of the question is moot.

Strong, high-impact tourism is here to stay. It’s a vital and integral part of our economy, and asking ourselves whether we have the option to simply put the brakes on tourism is akin to having a second child, realizing he’s kind of a handful, and then asking yourself whether you should have had that kid at all. You can’t take the kid back to the hospital, and you can’t return all of the assets that have turned Central Oregon into a growing destination for travel.

Yes, tourism is here to stay. And it’s nothing new—Bend has been boosting and self-promoting itself as a tourist destination for a good century at least. Remember those 300 days of sunshine have been around since at least 1911, for instance. And on July 3, 1912, the Bulletin ran an article titled “Outdoor Enthusiasts Find Diversified Joys in Central Oregon” (page 19 at that link) which wouldn’t be out of place in a promotional article today:

The western portion of Central Oregon is a land of rare beauty—of varied attractions far greater than any but the initiated realize. Indeed, for out of door recreation, for variety of scenic interest and for healthfulness, no territory in all the Northwest surpasses the country that lies along the Deschutes River and flanks the Cascade Mountains on their eastern slopes.

In this great region there lies a veritable paradise for out of door lovers and people who would make homes where there is recreation, health and happiness as well as the prosperity of dollars and cents. The investor, the business man and the farmer are not the only ones for whom Central Oregon has interest. The tourist, sportsman, camper, automobiler and health seeker will all find reward in this big, new land.

Bend was historically a mill town, but tourism has been part of the region’s DNA since the beginning, so it’s not going anywhere. Nor should it; Bend’s economy is tourism-driven, there’s no kicking that leg out from the stool.

At the same time we need to recognize that because of this, much of the jobs available here are service jobs, many of which are part-time or seasonal, and aren’t necessarily commensurate with where the cost of living is going—another downside to a tourist economy.

Recognizing the negative impact and issues surrounding tourism is the first step and that’s what we’ve seen this summer. The question now is— what do we do about it?