Busy roads, lines at our favorite spots, trash on beaches and trails, rudeness and entitled behavior — this summer’s tourist season had it all, didn’t it? Despite that, what follows here will be, I hope, a solid argument in favor of tourism and visitation in our local economy.
First, let’s be fair. The vast majority of visitors to our community are pleasant, respectful of the environment, kind to us local residents and often generous to local nonprofits. Most obey traffic laws and stick to the trails. They just want to enjoy for a little while what we get to enjoy every day. It’s the contrast that gets our attention, the outliers. One rude encounter can quickly color our perception of all visitors, one right turn from the left lane can lead us to the conclusion that poor driving is a universal trait of the visitor.
We're all visitors sometime
Here are a couple of things to consider, though. For starters, we’re all visitors in someone’s hometown at some point. We, too, search for street signs and miss turns and ask naïve questions when we’re on unfamiliar turf. We may even unwittingly fail to follow customs or rules we didn’t realize were a thing. In some ways it’s like the saying, “You’re not in traffic, you are traffic.”
A Warrenton friend asked me the other day, “When I go to Tillamook, am I a local because I live on the coast or a tourist because I live outside Tillamook County?” Both, maybe?
Visitors enrich our lives
Tourism itself is certainly nothing new in our region. Visitation built much of our local economy from the very beginning. Just look at old photos and see how many hotels and theaters dotted our streets — far more than the local population could support. From the Seaside Promenade and U.S. Highway 26 to the Astoria Column and Fort Stevens, much of our very infrastructure was built exclusively on the desire for and promise of tourists bringing their money to the coast.
In 2019, direct spending by visitors totaled three-quarters of a billion dollars. That represents thousands of jobs and a serious chunk of our community’s economy in just one year. Add indirect things like property taxes, room taxes, secondary spending and the long-term investment that comes with it and you begin to realize the financial benefit that visitors bring to our community.
So it’s all about money, right? Far from it, actually. Take a moment to consider what it means to live here. What do you love about this place? Is it the trails and parks? Is it the food and craft beverages? Shopping? Performing and visual arts? All of the above are better and more robust because of visitor spending. Just think about the craft beverage options here. How many local residents would it take to support all the great local breweries, distilleries and cider works we are lucky enough to have? More than the 40,000 we have, to be sure, especially considering that only 32,000 of those are over 21 years of age. That means that those local businesses rely to at least some extent on outside money — visitors.
And it’s not just food and beverage businesses that rely on outside money. We are blessed with a wide variety of performing arts venues, galleries, public art and museums. Our cultural assets here far exceed what a 40,000 soul community would normally be able to support. A similar case can be made for trails, parks and just about anything else that makes living here special. They are all provided in part by ourselves and in part by our guests.
Working to make it work
Okay, so guests buy us things — nice things, like theaters and beer. Does that mean that all the things I listed in the first sentence of this article don’t matter? Does money solve all the problems? Hardly, of course. Congestion and environmental stewardship and safety are all real concerns and have been since the beginning. They are problems to be solved, not trade offs to be tolerated.
Fortunately, we have local destination management organizations, local government, environment groups, ports, special districts, parks departments and citizens who take these matters seriously and consider the whole picture, not just the dollars involved. They are concerned with livability, sustainability, environmental protection, stewardship and the economy.
Recently those groups got together for the first time in a series of workshops, meetings and conversations called the North Coast Tourism Studio. Convened by Travel Oregon at the request of the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce, the studio brought together dozens of voices from as many groups and walks of life in Clatsop and Tillamook counties. Over the course of several conferences, forums and meetings we talked about the problems we are facing and the solutions available to us and exemplified elsewhere around the world. Most importantly we talked about a shared vision for the future. Do we seek an ever-increasing number of visitors? Do we concentrate on managing the impact of the visitation we already receive? Do we work separately or together?
The short answers, by the way, are management and working together. The reality is that with a growing worldwide middle class, leisure travel will continue to increase everywhere, including here. By working together, we get the best chance to make that travel positive for all concerned, the local population, the economy and the environment.
By early 2019 the North Coast Tourism Studio had evolved into the North Coast Tourism Management Network (NCTMN). Early work by the network includes a trailhead and beach ambassador program designed to meet visitors where they are and help them to enjoy nature responsibly. During the same time, the transportation team developed a car-free visit program that was piloted in Cannon Beach with excellent early adoption and slated to expand region-wide in 2021.
Tourism and COVID
Enter COVID-19. Now we have a shared set of values and goals, a communication network to put it to work and, it turns out, exactly the right people on the team to help us manage the effects on a pandemic and our economic recovery from it. Tourism is historically one of the first industries to rebound after an economic downturn, giving us an advantage here locally because we’ve got solid infrastructure and the network to help us coordinate our messaging — from the early “it’s not time yet” to more recent “safe travels” campaigns.
Bottom line: Tourism is nothing new around here, it represents a meaningful part of our economy, it contributes to our coastal lifestyle and it is likely to play a central role in our economic recovery. Follow your local destination management organization (either your chamber or the Seaside Convention and Visitors Bureau) on social media or get on their email list to keep up with the latest efforts. You can also either participate in NCTMN public forums or join an action team if you would like to help direct the efforts. Or just reach out to me. I’ll take your thoughts or connect you with an appropriate outlet for your knowledge and input. There’s a lot to be done still, so let’s get to work.
David Reid is the executive director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at David@oldoregon.com or 503-836-5141.