By Marina Starleaf Riker • The Bulletin

A popular destination

• Between

2.5 and 3 million

people visited Bend in 2015.

• On a typical summer day, the city hosts nearly

20,000 visitors.

• That’s about

20%

of Bend’s population of

87,000.

Sources: Visit Bend, census data

Traffic. Empty beer cans scattered throughout parks. Crowded trailhead parking lots.

These are just a few complaints often voiced in tourist communities, and Bend is no exception. From neighborhoods that feel like they’re overrun with vacation rentals to parking shortages downtown, Bend is facing a number of challenges directly related to its allure as a popular getaway.

Between 2.5 million and 3 million people visited Bend in 2015, most of which came during the summer, according to data from Visit Bend, the city’s tourism marketing agency. On a typical summer day, the city hosted nearly 20,000 visitors — about 20 percent of Bend’s population of 87,000, according to Census estimates.

While some business owners and city officials say Bend’s tourism industry is vital to the health of its economy, other local residents see it as a growing problem with no easy solutions.

“What you don’t want to have is a local community being frustrated by a really valuable part of the economy. It just isn’t good,” said Kevney Dugan, CEO of Visit Bend. “I look at this as an opportunity to set direction, and that’s fun.”

Bend is not unlike dozens of other communities that struggle to balance quality of life for residents with visitors’ demands. Cities and towns nationwide are grappling with how to deal with an influx of thousands of visitors into quiet neighborhoods and natural environments.

From finding ways to reduce the number of rental cars on the road to cracking down on vacation rentals, some have figured out what works — and what doesn’t — when the dealing with tourism’s pros and cons.

In Bend, promoting volunteer tourism — also known as “voluntourism — and a campaign to “Visit Like a Local” are tactics being discussed to reduce negative side effects of visitors.

Bend businesses and economists say tourism is partly responsible for dragging Bend’s economy out of the economic downturn, as well as luring young professionals and entrepreneurs to the city. The growth of tourism in Bend is outpacing some other vacation destinations nationwide. For instance, occupancy in Bend’s hotels grew more than 5 percent from 2009 to 2011 — that’s twice as much as Oregon’s uptick during the same period, and more than competing cities such as Flagstaff, Arizona, and Boulder, Colorado.

However, critics say the industry brings in low-paying jobs, high rent for vacation homes and adds wear and tear to parks and forests.

“These inconveniences are real costs,” said Damon Runberg, a regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department.

For instance, a lack of available parking spaces and increases in traffic are frequent complaints of Bend residents. Nationwide, some communities have largely failed at addressing those problems, increasing traffic problems for visitors and residents alike. But other are trying to figure out solutions to traffic problems, often by increasing access to public transit.

For example, LL Bean, the clothing company based out of Maine, partnered with a nonprofit to pay for a free bus system for visitors and residents to Acadia National Park along the Maine coast. The Island Explorer bus system, a fleet of more than two dozen propane-powered buses, transports visitors and residents to and from hiking trails, beaches and downtown businesses for free.

But some of the nation’s most popular tourist destinations such as Honolulu and Miami have struggled to keep visitors off the road, with drivers being stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours at a time. On Oahu’s north shore, dozens of tourists suddenly brake to look at turtles, while visitors in Florida struggle with frequent jams while en route to the beach.

Exhaustion of natural resources, stress on infrastructure and destruction of local plants and animals’ habitats are some of tourism’s biggest downfalls, according to the United Nations Environment Program. From tourists trashing beaches in New Jersey to tons of trash left after the Rose Parade in Los Angeles, cities across the nation have to deal with visitors who don’t clean up after themselves.

Some of Bend’s visitors are no different. Bend residents have complained they throw loud parties in vacation homes in otherwise quiet neighborhoods, while others who are drunk or high cause enforcement problems for police. Some abandon inner tubes along the Deschutes River, and others leave trash in the national forests.

Bend resident Katy Bryce brought up the problem by writing a post in response to seeing a large pile of trash during a morning walk through McKay Park this summer. While it’s unclear whether all the trash was from visitors or residents, photographs on Bryce’s blog show plastic water bottles, inner tubes and clothing strewn across the riverbank.

“This morning, on my walk with my dog along the river, I saw piles of rubbish that rivaled third world countries,” Bryce wrote.

In response to Bryce’s blog post, Visit Bend started working on campaign called, “Visit like a Local.” From urging tourists to signal at roundabouts to picking up trash along popular hiking trails, the campaign aims to persuade tourists to act respectfully to other Bend residents and clean up after themselves. Using reusable water bottles and opt for biking and walking instead of driving are among ideas the agency is trying to push to visitors.

“Those are things that were trademarks of Bend’s culture,” Dugan said.

Right now, the agency is planning to push the campaign on social media and incorporate the tips throughout its visitor guide. Eventually, it could lead to print advertising as well, Dugan said.

Another option to mitigate the negative effects could be volunteer tourism — also known as “voluntourism,” said Tawna Fenske, director of communications for Visit Bend.

Nationwide, a growing number of Americans are choosing to spend their vacation times working in orphanages abroad or replanting native forests instead of opting to sit by a pool at a beachside resort. One of the options being discussed in Bend is for tour companies to offer activities such as multiday cleanup tours, for instance, a canoe trip where visitors pickup trash along the Deschutes River, said Fenske.

“I think that’s the next big wave,” Fenske said. “I think we’re going to start seeing people who are looking for ways to visit a community and volunteer.”

­— Reporter: 541-633-2160,

mriker@bendbulletin.com

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