Visitors return to Oregon, providing relief for storefronts and assuaging post-pandemic fears.
In March of 2020, Portland artist Emma Geddie decided she would take the plunge and become an artist full-time. She had made a steady income selling her work at the Portland Saturday Market, and had saved up enough money to quit her day job.
A month later, the COVID-19 pandemic had stopped her business cold. Later the virus would claim the life of her mother.
During the enormously difficult year, Geddie transitioned to online sales and got by on savings, support from family and friends and a grant from the Artist Trust Organization. Now that the state has reopened, revenue has increased.
The Saturday Market reopened in April, albeit with reduced hours, and a boom in summer tourism has bolstered Geddie’s sales.
The timing could not be better.
“I rely heavily on the Portland Saturday Market for income so it's really great that it's bounced back. Although we are only open one day a week instead of two, the increased sales more than makes up for it.” Geddie says. “I'm incredibly grateful for the people who have come to visit, explore, and buy a little art along the way.”
While Oregon’s summer tourism numbers are still being collected, data from other states suggests tourism is surging.
Some hotels in Las Vegas, for example, have been given permission to operate at 100% capacity due to unprecedented demand. The boom in tourism is likely due to pent-up post-COVID-19 demand, but has provided much-needed relief to Oregon vendors.
Not long ago, tourism in Oregon faced gloomy prospects. The tourism and hospitality industry was one of the first and hardest-hit sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A February report released by the American Hotel and Lodging Association showed that nearly 10,000 jobs were lost in the hotel industry. An analysis from the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging association projected losses of $240 billion in 2020.
In addition to COVID-19 restrictions, several media outlets predicted Portland’s image as a tourist destination would be tarnished by civil unrest accompanying the city's ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. For the moment, these fears appear to have been unfounded. Data from the Port of Portland shows air travel to the city more than doubled in May, compared to last year.
The Oregon Coast is showing signs of recovery as well.
“We have seen quite an increase this year compared to other non-covid years. I would say our sales are up by 30%-50% depending on the day,” says Kelly Mauer, co-owner of Cannon Beach Chocolate Cafe in a written statement. “We are doing really well financially. I would say our revenue has doubled since last year.”
Russell Vandenberg, general manager of the Seaside Convention Center, says convention visitors are having trouble finding accommodations due to the influx of tourists. He has not processed a cancellation for three months, and the center is currently booked out until 2031.
“We went from zero to 100 miles an hour overnight, with no ramp-up at all,” Vandenberg says. “Every day seems like a weekend. Usually we would gather up on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but now every day feels like a Friday. Overcast, sunny, it doesn't matter. I’m impressed at how fast the recovery is going.”
There could be a competing explanation for businesses’ tourism boom: the COVID-19 pandemic led to unprecedented closures within the hospitality industry, leaving visitors to the state with fewer options. That could mean that businesses that managed to keep their doors open are overwhelmed by an influx of business they once shared with competitors — leading to a skewed perception of overall conditions.
The state’s labor shortage has also had an effect. One hotel owner, who chose to remain anonymous, said a lack of cleaning staff has meant rooms cannot be turned over quickly enough to operate at full capacity. Mauer’s cafe is in the process of hiring more staff because of booming business, but has had difficulties finding workers.
RELATED STORY: Coastal Labor Shortage Highlights Bigger Problems
While increased federal unemployment benefits are likely to be scaled back, lack of affordable housing and child care mean Oregon’s labor shortage might not be solved any time soon.
But even if overall tourism revenue ends up being around the same as in years past, and the labor shortage continues, one thing is clear: reports of the death of tourism in Oregon are greatly exaggerated.
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