Bend’s Wanderlust Tours celebrates 20 years

Video: Owner Dave Nissen guides a canoe trip to Hosmer Lake

By Valerie Smith / The Bulletin

In the 20 years he has operated Wanderlust Tours in Bend, David Nissen has seen a lot of sights — including some that were a little too natural.

“There was a group, … (and) their mission was just to have fun,” said Nissen. “I ended up calling them ‘naked group,’ because as we hiked in many different spots, Cultus Lake, on the McKenzie River and various places, every time this group came here, everyone would strip down butt-naked and start swimming.”

It’s memories like these that co-owners Nissen and wife, Aleta, have reminisced about since establishing their nature-centered tourism company in September 1993.

Others businesses, such as Sun Country Tours, have been operating longer. But Wanderlust’s variety — moonlight snowshoe and lava cave tours — and its trip components — canoe trips with catered dinners served on fine china and linens, for example — set it apart. They also have earned Wanderlust and the Nissens statewide tourism and business awards and recognition from industry leaders.

“I believe that Wanderlust Tours helped pioneer the ecotourism development for Central Oregon,” said Alana Hughson, president and CEO of the Central Oregon Visitors Association. “In more recent years, ecotourism has become an integral component of all tourism development. However, Wanderlust was a groundbreaker in this arena.”

David Nissen began dreaming about a career in tourism in 1980, when he took a guided-bus tour from Paris to Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral in France. Observing the tour guide inspired an idea.

“That’s what I want to do,” Nissen said. “It is today, 20 years later; I am doing what I was thinking about way back when.”

Nissen found Oregon to be the perfect locale for such a business. However, he felt the need to add something new to local guided tours.

“A missing component was that people never walked to the edge of a lake and jumped in,” he said. “They never felt snow flip up from their snowshoes and drench their head in the rooster-tail of the snow flying. They didn’t smell a subalpine fir and know what a subalpine fir does for the ecosystem.

“If I can incorporate that into this wonderful thing called tourism, then I will, and that was the birth of Wanderlust.”

The business featured a canoe trip and a few hikes its first year, for 87 customers.

It grew nearly 100 percent in its first five years, the Nissens said, and continued growing, even during the recession.

Today, it offers tours to Central Oregon lakes, mountains, caves and trails, along with the region’s breweries, wineries and distilleries.

Wanderlust has won awards in 20 years for its contributions to sustainable tourism, recognition as an innovative and entrepreneurial family business and its focus on Oregon’s natural beauty and outdoor recreation.

Unlike other tourism agencies around the globe that focus mostly on profits, Nissen said, Oregon tourism continues to showcase the state’s environment.

“I will never have a company that is money-driven. Of course, we all have to make a living and survive,” said Nissen. “The thousands and thousands of people whom we have shared the natural world with, that is the spice of life.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0325

vsmith@bendbulletin.com