Neither a pandemic nor a citywide travel advisory asking visitors not to come is slowing the pace of summertime travelers to Central Oregon.
Hotels are experiencing a smidge below near-normal occupancy levels. On the weekends, long lines of cars park along the side of the Cascades Lake Scenic Byway. Boaters, kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders fill the lakes and rivers.
It’s summertime in Central Oregon. It’s the season where residents and visitors alike flock outdoors to recreate on trails, mountains, lakes and rivers.
Take the Cornell family. Walking from their Hampton Inn & Suites hotel in the Old Mill District on Wednesday in search of coffee, the family is here for five days. They’ve gone out to dinner. They’ve booked reservations at the High Desert Museum, and they’ve made plans to drive up to the mountains.
“We love it here,” said Kevin Cornell. “We had never been to Bend before, but have friends who had lived here.”
Confined by COVID-19 for months, the family decided to hop in the car and make the 9-hour drive from Santa Cruz to Bend for a few days, Kevin Cornell said.
“We were tired of sheltering in place,” Kathleen Cornell said. “The weather gets foggy there in the mornings and evenings and we wanted to come someplace where there were sunny blue skies and warm nights.”
The Cornells are just one kind of visitor who is making Central Oregon their vacation destination. Although tourism marketing agencies in Bend and Central Oregon don’t want visitors to forge about the area for future travel, they stopped marketing early in the pandemic to follow the governor’s guidelines.
The Bend City Council reissued its lodging advisory on July 15 urging visitors to stay away through Labor Day. Summer is generally the busiest time for visitors in Central Oregon. Typically, hotels operate at well past 90% occupancy, achieving high daily rates with bookings made months in advance.
Travel and tourism have become such big business for Oregon that it’s the second-largest gross domestic product the state produces behind forestry and wood products, according to an annual study by Dean Runyan Associates.
In Central Oregon, visitors spent more than $1 billion in 2019 and employed 10,000 people who stayed an average of nine nights, mostly in vacation rentals, according to the same study. By comparison, visitor spending in the Willamette Valley was $1.9 billion, according to the Runyan study.
COVID-19 has affected travel, according to the Travel Oregon weekly report. During the week July 12-July 18, the Oregon coast and Central Oregon experienced the lowest occupancy losses statewide. Occupancy was 18.1% below 2019 levels in Central Oregon and 15.5% for the Oregon coast.
At the same time, Gov. Kate Brown issued new restrictions to curb the spread of the virus by reducing how many people can gather indoor public spaces to 100 and setting a 10 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants.
Seeking cooler times
At Twin Lakes Resort, Katie Dunn, who owns the resort with her husband, Devan Dunn, this summer hasn’t been any less busy than summers past. During the week the parking lot was pretty empty, she said, but the resort has its regulars, some local residents and other visitors.
“We have that normal crowd, which is lovely,” Dunn said. “We had a gorgeous weather weekend last week and we were crowded.”
Visitors come for the day or overnight, mostly from Bend and Sunriver, she said.
“We seem more full than normal and our customer base is about the same,” Dunn said. “I think folks were trying to escape the heat and people want to get out and fish and swim.”
When Visit Bend CEO asked lodging properties a few weeks ago where visitors were coming from, the answer was mostly Oregon and some Washington and California visitors, said Kevney Dugan.
“It was more Oregon than prior summers in general with drive-in traffic being the predominant form of travel,” Dugan said in an email.
While Susan Conner, an owner of Sunnyside Sports on Newport Avenue in Bend, doesn’t have a keen knowledge of where customers are coming from, she does know that the rental bike business has been booked solid.
But come next week, the short, one and two-day rentals are not on her calendar, whereas most of the bookings later this month are from people who had booked rentals for longer periods way in advance.
The bike rental business is mostly being absorbed by out of towners. There’s pressure on bike rentals because of a supply chain shortage of bikes in general.
“We’ve had a lot of bike rentals,” Conner said. “We could probably rent twice as many as we have. Rentals are very busy.”