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Too Many Tourists? 

Bend grapples with the seasonal influx of visitors

A river runs next to this trash pile, recently left behind by river revelers. Photo by Katy Bryce.

A river runs next to this trash pile, recently left behind by river revelers. Photo by Katy Bryce.

When Katy Bryce sat down on the front porch of her west side Bend home last month to write a blog post, she didn't know that she was about to voice the frustrations of thousands of local residents.

Bryce, a freelance writer, wrote about walking along the Deschutes River that morning, about how she'd found garbage left over from the previous night's revelries washed up on the shore at McKay Park, about how her community was losing something as more and more people kept coming.

She dared to suggest that Bend needs to have a serious conversation about tourism. Her headline: "Bend is being loved to death—and it's my fault."

The post went viral locally. It received 132 comments on Bryce's site and was shared more than 5,000 times on Facebook, far more than any other post she'd put up before.

"I've had strangers come up to me on the street and recognize me," she said.

Bryce doesn't hate tourists. But she and many local residents are feeling the squeeze this summer as more people than ever visit this no-longer-secret corner of the world.

"When is too much too much?" Bryce asked. "Is there a tipping point?"

That question has even landed on City Club of Central Oregon's radar. The club's Aug. 18 forum has the wordplay-heavy title: "Tourism or Tourisn't: Is the juice of a tourist economy worth the squeeze?"

> A record summer

The sense that Bend has more visitors than ever is no illusion.

Visit Bend, the city's primary tourism promotion organization, commissioned a study of how many people visited in 2015. It estimated that 2.5 to 3 million visitors came and stayed an average of 2.4 days. That works out to 6 to 7.25 million visitor nights over the year.

To put that in perspective, almost 20,000 people visited Bend every day of the year on average. Bend's resident population is only about 87,000 people.

The busiest season is summer, and this year has been especially strong for tourism. Tawna Fenske, Visit Bend's communications manager, predicts it will be a record-breaking summer season.

Residents accustomed to a slower, less-crowded pace are feeling the crunch. It's almost impossible to hike a favorite trail in peaceful isolation. Floating the Deschutes on a hot day feels like bumper cars. Restaurants don't have open tables. Roads are congested. Parking spaces are full.

"There's an impact on our natural resources. The recreation that people come here to do, that we move here to do, are all being affected," Bryce said.

The city has about 3,500 hotel and motel rooms. Last year, visitors nearly filled them all in July, when occupancy was at 90 percent of capacity. Those figures don't account for the 654 active short-term rental licenses on file with the City, which represent AirBnB and other short-term rentals.

Visit Bend President Kevney Dugan suggested that if more tourists come, the lodging industry would likely build more rooms. "Hotel developers see an opportunity," he said.

Spokespeople for Visit Bend, Central Oregon Visitors Association and Travel Oregon, the three main organizations that promote Bend and Central Oregon tourism, all declined to say if any number of tourists would be too many. They have no plans to dial back their marketing, especially of the shoulder seasons.

Travel Oregon, at least, acknowledged that there are some times to stop promoting particular destinations.

"I don't think we'd ever say there's too much tourism, but we do have to be careful to protect our gems and natural resource areas," said Allison Keeney, communications manager for Travel Oregon. She cited Smith Rock State Park as an example. After state park officials said that there were so many hikers and rock climbers that they threatened the natural integrity of the park, state tourism promoters stopped marketing it.

> Hidden costs

The cost of tourism is more than trash and pressure on natural resources. More traffic means more wear and tear on roads. More people drinking or smoking marijuana means more burden on local law enforcement when drunk or high people get behind the wheel or cause other trouble.

Tourists do not directly pay for those things, not like locals. Everyone pays state taxes on gas, on liquor, on marijuana and cigarettes, even tourists. But when the state gets around to sending a portion of those taxes back to localities, they do it on a per capita basis. For example, Bend this year will receive an estimated $14.86 per local resident in liquor tax revenue and $57.47 in gas tax. The formula does not account for tourists. As a result, communities with a lot of visitors wind up shortchanged.

Even though visitors to Bend pay those taxes, the money goes into a big pot that the state divvies up based on resident population. As a result, Bend's tourism subsidizes services in other Oregon communities.

At least the marijuana tax will change next year. Per capita distribution will switch to a formula based on how many licensed retailers there are. Changing the other allocations would require action in Salem, and communities that benefit from the current system would likely oppose it.

"Tourists have a significant impact on local law enforcement, and there are no resources to alleviate this. It results in Deschutes County residents experiencing a lower level of service," Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel said.

According to data on criminal charges provided by Hummel's office, the share of crimes in the community committed by people from out of town has increased in recent years. Disorderly conduct in particular has seen a marked increase, going from visitors being 7 percent of charged cases in 2013 to 19 percent so far this year.

> Tourists pay in other ways

That's not to say that tourists pay nothing to support the infrastructure they enjoy while visiting. Bend, Deschutes County and Oregon all charge Transient Room Taxes (TRTs). In Bend, the tax is 10.4 percent for the city plus 1.8 percent for the state. Lodging outside the city limits falls under county taxes.

Visit Bend and other organizations rely on the TRT as a key metric. Unlike the estimates of actual visitors and nights stayed, the TRT offers concrete data about how much tax visitors pay.

The TRT has rebounded since the tourism industry tanked during the recession. During the 2014-15 fiscal year, visitors paid $6.5 million in city TRT. If this year remained on pace, Bend's TRT revenue could top $7.5 million.

Under state law, 35 percent of that money goes to tourism promotion, and most of that funds Visit Bend. The remaining 65 cents on the dollar goes to Bend's general fund.

"Those are real dollars that the city uses to pay for streets, to pay for police, to pay for fire," said Bend Economic Development Director Carolyn Eagan.

This year, a good chunk of it is going to pay for street maintenance after voters rejected a gas tax in March. City Council would like to hold onto an even bigger slice so tourists pay more for their impact on roads, but the lodging industry is resisting that move. Discussions are ongoing, according to Visit Bend.

TRT aside, it's no secret that tourism is a huge economic driver.

Summers are so strong that Visit Bend doesn't market that season much. Instead, it focuses on the shoulder seasons and winter. They target specific markets, primarily Portland, Seattle and the San Francisco Bay area.

Most of Bend's visitors don't travel far to get here. In 2013, the most recent survey year, Oregonians accounted for 37 percent of all visitors. California (18 percent) and Washington (15 percent) were the other popular states of origin. No other state accounted for more than 2.5 percent of visitors.

Stephanie Tarntino and her husband visit Bend from Portland a few times per year. Sometimes they stay with her brother, a Bend resident, and sometimes in a hotel. They, like many who visit, come for the abundant outdoor activities and good restaurants.

The increasing number of tourists has not diminished their enjoyment. "The only times I've noticed there were a lot of people around was when we happened to go on a weekend when something else was happening, like high school graduation," she said.

Tourism is a large driver of the local economy. A state study on tourism's economic impact estimated that visitors spent $660 million in Deschutes County in 2015 and were responsible for 6,680 full- and part-time jobs.

Eagan, the city's economic development director, said that nearly 20 percent of summer employment is in leisure and hospitality.

"We aren't relying on tourism for all of our future jobs, but tourism will always be a part of the economy here in Bend," she said.

> Respect for Bend

In her original blog post, Bryce suggested change must come from both the top and the bottom if the community is to find a sustainable model. Tourism can be a vibrant part of the economy without trashing the things that make Bend a special place to live and visit.

"I don't have the answer, but acknowledging the challenge is the first step," she said. "We all talk about it behind closed doors, and no one is willing to do anything about it because we're all scared what it will mean to the economy."

She suggested that residents can go the extra step to make sure people they invite to town understand the Bend way. And when the rude people do show up, exercise patience and do little things to help. When she found the trash by the river, she returned with garbage bags to clean it up.

"We need all people to do their part, locals and tourists. We also need community leaders and government officials to make changes to make this place more sustainable," Bryce said. "All of the problems such as litter, traffic and things, I don't want to attribute just to tourism. There are plenty of locals who do those things, too."

Local tourism promoters say they must deal with these challenges before Bend loses the very things that draw people here to visit. Visit Bend and the Central Oregon Visitors Association (COVA) have been developing strategies to improve the tourism experience.

"We've been discussing how we can develop programs to engage and educate both visitors and residents in a sustainable and responsible commitment to the outdoor lifestyle brand of Bend and Central Oregon," said Alana Hughson, COVA's CEO.

They've reached out for help and ideas to community partners such as the Deschutes Land Trust and Oregon Natural Desert Association.

"As we have this influx of people, whether it's a tourist or a new resident, it doesn't matter why or how they are coming. Is there a better way we can engage with them about maintaining and respecting the Bend lifestyle and Bend culture," asked Visit Bend's Dugan.

The working name for their initiative is "Visit like a local."

"People don't want to come to a location and feel like they stand out. They want to feel like they fit in," Dugan said.

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