Bend is awfully nice in the summer, but it isn’t perfect. The wait for a patio table at downtown restaurants is too long, there are too many people riding on our favorite mountain bike trails, and the traffic! Weren’t all these roundabouts supposed to speed things up?
Fixing these summertime inconveniences may be difficult, but identifying the culprits is not. All of us know it’s the tourists, and we’re not shy about voicing our displeasure.
When the Deschutes and Willamette national forests released a proposal this spring to limit access to many heavily used wilderness trailheads, hundreds of people submitted comments. Among them is a Bend resident who opined that “the real root cause of the issue is the Visit Bend campaigns.” In pointing the finger at the city’s tourism-marketing agency, she was far from alone.
The Bend Park & Recreation District asked participants in this year’s Community Needs Survey how they felt about building faculties that attract more tourists to Bend. About 7 percent were “very supportive,” and about 37 percent were “not at all supportive.” Don’t hold your breath for another whitewater park.
Other Bend residents find less formal ways to express their feelings. Recently, some knuckleheads spray painted “Get out of our town” on the Pilot Butte viewing plaza. Presumably, this was aimed at tourists who visit the butte to look at the Cascades.
It’s true that tourists contribute to Bend’s summer headaches: the restaurant waits, the heavy traffic and, my pet peeve, those pedal-powered bars that make traffic move even more slowly.
But it’s also true that tourists create jobs, generate local tax revenue and make possible amenities valued by locals. It’s tourism, says Old Mill District developer Bill Smith, that allows the Les Schwab Amphitheater to host big-name musical acts. If you saw Phish or Jack Johnson play in Bend, thank a tourist.
Do the benefits of tourism outweigh the headaches? That’s an entirely subjective determination, but a couple of things are worth considering before scapegoating tourists and tourism promotion for every summer irritation.
First, many of the people crowding roads and trails and bobbing in the Deschutes River aren’t tourists. As Central Oregon grows, so does the number of permanent residents who visit the Green Lakes trailhead and the Phil’s Trail network. Summer, Smith points out, is when everyone comes out to play — tourists and residents alike. In a report supporting their proposal to limit wilderness access, the Deschutes and Willamette National Forests cite not only the impact of tourism, but also Central Oregon’s boom in permanent residents.
Second, attributing the summer tourist population exclusively, or even largely, to formal promotional efforts is as overly simplistic as attributing all summertime traffic to tourists. Yes, Visit Bend and other entities have worked for years to build the city’s tourism economy. However, Visit Bend currently devotes less than 10 percent of its media spending to summer tourism. The agency is focused, rather, on bringing people to Bend in the winter and during the lower-traffic “shoulder” seasons.
Depending upon your view of tourism, you could argue that even 10 percent is too much. But how much would summer tourism drop if promotional spending disappeared entirely? Consider the results of a summer 2016 visitor survey commissioned by Visit Bend. Tourists were asked how they heard about Bend. By far the most common answer, given by 59 percent of those responding: word of mouth/recommendation. The second most common answer, given by 39 percent of those responding: previous visit to Bend.
Formal promotional efforts may contribute to word of mouth and, of course, to previous visits. But so may a lot of other things, including the sort of informal promotional activities the thousands of us who’ve moved to Bend in recent years engage in almost without thinking. Have you climbed South Sister or floated the Deschutes recently, then posted a photo of your fabulous outing to Facebook or Instagram for the benefit of your (hopefully envious) friends and relatives in places like Akron, Ohio? It’s only natural. You want everyone to know how good you have it. If so, you’re a tourism booster, too.
Love it or hate it, summer tourism in Bend is unlikely to abate as long as the region’s recreational advantages and cultural amenities exist and as long as people keep moving here and spreading the word.
It’s hard to imagine that local population growth will stop. State land use laws are designed to accommodate growth, not kill it. As the region’s economy diversifies, meanwhile, Bend and surrounding cities will become realistic destinations for people in a greater range of professions. These people will spread the word to their friends and relatives.
This is a future that appeals to some people much more than it does to others. No matter how you feel about tourism and the growth that drives it, however, there are worse things than living in a place that affords the luxury of complaining about people who spend a lot of money to experience for a few days what you get to enjoy all year.
Akron, Ohio, should be so lucky.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin