After the weather, tourism has become one of the biggest conversation starters on the North Coast.
As the number of people visiting the region grows, so does the impact on the community. According to a study done by Dean Runyan Associates, tourists spent $779 million in 2016, almost doubling the $391 million recorded in 2000. More than 8,000 tourism-related jobs were supported by travel spending in 2016.
But with the economic benefit comes issues of overcrowding. Trails are taking a beating. counted More than 100,000 visitors were counted at Haystack Rock just this year. Insufficient parking in places like Cannon Beach has left communities feeling overwhelmed.
To help address the concerns, the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce and the Haystack Rock Awareness Program have secured a $20,000 rural tourism studio grant from Travel Oregon, the state’s largest tourism agency.
“Around here, sometimes we have too much of a good thing,” Court Carrier, the chamber’s executive director, said. “What can we do to manage tourism better?”
A rural tourism studio is a multiyear project where professionals from Travel Oregon lead workshops and offer guidance on how to make tourism sustainable — environmentally and economically — for Clatsop and Tillamook counties. The grant must be used to finance a tangible change or product, like connecting a trail system or launching an environmental education program.
A committee of about 30 industry leaders from private businesses, state and national parks, environmental groups and visitors associations met last week in Cannon Beach to figure out how to expand tourism without sacrificing the area’s natural resources and quality of life.
“The city (of Cannon Beach) asked for an ecotourism strategy in their strategic plan,” Melissa Keyser, the program coordinator for the Haystack Rock Awareness Program, said. “It’s everyone’s job to protect this area. We all have positive ideas, but how do we make it happen?”
At places like Fort Stevens State Park, Oregon State Parks North Coast District Manager Teri Wing sees the impact of the booming tourism industry almost every day.
Wing has been with the parks system for more than 30 years and said it’s almost hard to describe the influx of travelers. At Fort Stevens, people book RV spots nine months in advance, and for most of the summer the park is at capacity with more than 5,000 visitors at once. Being constantly at capacity leads to more maintenance for staff, as well as an increase in people parking and camping alongside U.S. Highway 101 when the park is full, she said.
Overuse of certain parks and trails has lead to erosion issues, as well. Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area in Pacific City has had to put up fencing and more signage to keep people out of actively eroding areas.
“When the understory (on the trail) isn’t allowed to heal, all you are going to have is mud,” Wing said. “Grass doesn’t grow back, so you end up with a lot of erosion. With how much use they get, we don’t have the infrastructure to fix them.”
Terms like ecotourism or sustainable tourism often make people think of traveling in an eco-friendly way, said Kristin Dahl, the vice president of destination development at Travel Oregon, who led Monday’s workshop.
But making tourism sustainable also means tackling local livability issues like affordable housing for service industry employees, having accessible public transit and representing cultural heritage.
For Jon Burpee, the superintendent of Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, creating sustainable tourism means developing affordable housing.
“It is hard to manage a park effectively when seasonal park rangers can’t find housing that’s affordable,” he said. “Sustainable tourism has to be a way to meet greater needs.”
Often when Dahl leads these workshops, she said communities are looking for ways to bring more people to their area. But the challenge for the North Coast will be learning how to manage the volume of tourists already coming, which could come in the form of asking them to visit different times of year other than summer and to try underutilized parks and attractions.
“It’s a good problem to have. Tourism is good for the economy,” Wing said. “We just want to lessen the pressure on these areas.”
A path to follow
Casey Roeder, the executive director at the Skamania County Chamber of Commerce in Washington state, participated in the Columbia River Gorge tourism studio last year.
As the former president of the Columbia River Gorge Visitors Association, Roeder said the region faced similar issues to Clatsop and Tillamook counties.
“We have very highly used areas that feel congestion — Multnomah Falls, Dog Mountain, et cetera. The same time of year we would have too many people,” Roeder said. “So we had to ask, ‘How do we disperse people to other areas that get less use?’”
Out of their tourism studio came the Columbia Express, a shuttle system that takes visitors to and from Multnomah Falls, which reduced traffic and parking challenges.
Another project funded by the grant was a 20-year plan to connect biking and hiking trails, as well as an itinerary of events that lined up with bus schedules to reduce vehicle use.
“Our biggest outcomes came from moving people around the Gorge without cars. Sometimes we think we have to figure out how to do this yourself, but brainstorming with people from around the region was really beneficial,” she said.
The North Coast is at the very beginning of this process. Workshops and public forums won’t occur until next summer, Dahl said.
But for Carrier, he’s excited to get started.
“This is our community,” he said. “It’s too important to ignore.”