Travel Message: Stay Local and Spend Money

Joan McGuire

As lockdown restrictions ease, tourism agencies encourage day-trippers and local residents to kick-start the travel sector’s recovery.

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The decline was dramatic and deep. Gov. Kate Brown’s March order barring nonessential travel and the federal ban on international travelers from Europe and Asia shut down an entire tourism industry that had seen strong growth in Oregon over the past several years.

The impact is felt particularly hard at Travel Oregon, the state’s tourism agency. The bureau is almost entirely funded through hotel lodging tax, a revenue source that has plunged over the past two months. It has slashed its budget forecast for the fiscal year by between 40% and 50% and will furlough 30% of staff in June.

Now that the governor has introduced a phased, gradual reopening of the economy, Travel Oregon and regional tourism associations are turning to local residents to help the travel sector recover by encouraging them to visit local parks and spend money in restaurants and cultural institutions when they are allowed to do so.

The loss of international tourists hits Oregon particularly hard compared with other states. Foreign tourists stay longer and spend more money than locals. Before COVID-19, international tourists accounted for more than 12% of overnight-visitor spending in Oregon compared with 4.5% for the U.S. as a whole, according to Tourism Economics, a research firm.

With foreign tourist revenue gone, regional tourism bureaus aim to eventually claw back some tourism dollars from the so-called drive market — tourists who are willing to drive several hours in-state as well as from neighboring states, such as Seattle, Northern California and Idaho.

Complicating the recovery is the fact that different parts of the state are more ready than others to welcome visitors.

Marcus Hibdon, director of communications at Travel Portland, emphasizes the public should follow the governor’s orders that still advise against nonessential travel. His agency will encourage residents to visit businesses, consider a night out in downtown Portland and stay in hotels. The agency communicates on social media what businesses are open and what entertainment is available.

He expects “pent-up demand” in the drive market from “people who want to get out of town but are not ready to get on a plane.”

In Southern Oregon, the local tourism agency is seeking to rebrand the region as an outdoor-recreation hub. The area is well known for the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. The event is canceled for the rest of the season. Brad Niva, executive director of Travel Southern Oregon, says the bureau will seek to market the area’s hiking, biking and whitewater-rafting activities, as well as its wineries.

Southern Oregon is not as hard hit by the loss of international tourists, who represent less than 10% of the market. The exception is Crater Lake near Klamath Falls, which attracts foreign travelers. “In Southern Oregon, we have always had short-term visitors who stay one to two nights. It is not shifting that much,” says Niva.

The region has fewer people with COVID-19 compared with other parts of the state, and its hotel occupancy rate, which is between 30% and 40%, is a little higher than elsewhere. Its occupancy rate is normally between 70% and 80% at this time of year.

Niva says his agency will spend money on researching who is visiting the region this summer to understand how they stay and where they visit.

The Oregon Coast is an example of a region that differs widely in how prepared it is to welcome visitors. Several counties on the Southern Oregon Coast opened early, such as Coos, Curry and Douglas counties. Coastal communities closest to Portland, such as Clatsop County, are less prepared.

Marcus Hinz, executive director of Oregon Coast Visitors Association, says his agency will not be prescriptive about when businesses should reopen to tourists. His agency has partnered with local chambers of commerce to survey businesses on how prepared they are to reopen. This readiness will be expressed on visitor websites, such as state parks.

The Coast has unique challenges in opening back up. Inefficiencies in the food-distribution system and labor shortages because of a lack of affordable housing mean it will be impossible for all restaurants and hotels to open at the same time.

The Oregon Coast Visitors Association is partnering with local nonprofits, coastal ports and food suppliers to increase the amount of food in restaurants. “Those with shorter supply chains will get up and running more quickly,” says Hinz.

Part of this effort is a partnership with the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Oregon Farmers Markets Association to create an online marketplace for selling locally sourced food in case food markets cannot open. It is also working with day fishermen to deliver their catch to local restaurants. Currently, most seafood caught locally is sold into the international market.

The recovery will be long for the travel, tourism and hospitality sector. It is one of the hardest hit from the coronavirus pandemic, and it may take the longest to bounce back to pre-COVID-19 levels given that international travel is not expected to return for several months and even years. Tourism Economics estimates the loss of revenue from international tourism in Oregon amounts to 23%.

“May has been really hard,” says Sara Morrissey, public affairs manager for Travel Oregon. “This dramatic decline was so quick and so deep that the agency has never been in this position before.”

Chris Harder, a principal at Coraggio Group, a consulting firm, says tourism agencies are having to look internally at how they can survive as organizations. His firm is advising travel businesses and agencies on how to get by in an uneven economy that could see a resurgence of the coronavirus in the fall.

“Organizations that are focused and flexible will be the ones that survive,” says Harder.

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