With spring upon us and COVID-19 vaccines promised to be available to all people in Oregon within a handful of weeks, we here in Central Oregon are beginning to look to the summer and beyond—when tourism will return with full force to the region. Tour operators and guide services we have talked to say they're already booking so many guests that at least some of them are forgoing their own summer-fun plans to focus on their businesses, so ravaged by the past year.
Of course, the notion of having throngs of tourists on our streets again is a concern for some, including at least some members of the Bend City Council who hope to slow that tide by ensuring the entities tasked with promoting Bend tourism, including Visit Bend, are not going out of their way to promote the city. During the most recent meeting of the Bend City Council, some councilors made remarks about wanting to find ways to keep Texans and other people from states without mask mandates out of our city—as if such a thing could reasonably be done at the city-government level.
- Bend Park and Recreation District
We all now realize, even without promotion of Bend this year, the tourists will come, as they did last summer, as well. Even amid the fear and uncertainty that came in a world without a COVID-19 vaccine, local hotels and short-term rental properties saw occupancy rates in the 80% range or higher at some points last summer. Bend is not a secret, and it no longer takes expensive TV commercials or web ads to bring tourists and newcomers here.
With that in mind, the question is not, 'how do we keep tourists from coming,' but instead, 'how do we plan for tourism in the most responsible and reasonable manner possible?' Rather than wringing our hands and making passive-aggressive comments disparaging our fellow Americans, our city and county leadership should be making plans that accommodate the tourists in ways that benefit locals and tourists alike.
Fortunately, there are many models being considered—or adopted—in other cities that both accommodate for safe interaction among people, and also stand to make cities more livable for the humans who occupy them, to boot. Many of these plans will sound familiar to those who participate in conversations about active transportation and pedestrian-friendly cities.
Back in September, The Guardian newspaper asked architecture firms to envision what cities should do to "better design everything from offices to streets to transport—and we have analysed each one—to help inoculate our cities against a disease that is proving so difficult to inoculate against in our bodies." The ideas submitted included the expansion of "bike superhighways" and the pedestrianization of spaces by closing streets to cars. Along one such bike superhighway, architects proposed flexible indoor/outdoor retail pavilions, socially distanced al-fresco dining, and even outdoor meeting spaces located near office buildings—creating what one Chicago-based firm, SOM, titled a new "sidewalk economy." Another firm, We Made That, along with Gort Scott, proposed a "digitally enabled high street," that uses digital technology to keep tabs on how busy a street might be at a certain time, allowing those concerned with crowds to choose a different time to visit. "Monitoring traffic and footfall could help people avoid busy times, while air-quality data would help those with vulnerable immune systems," The Guardian described.
Some of these ideas, such as the closure of Sixth Street in Bend to cars, have been at least explored if not implemented in Bend. Even as restaurants once again can welcome guests for indoor dining, the City will continue to allow those restaurants to keep their expanded outdoor seating—smart moves that will help to disperse people throughout what promises to be a busy summer. But with basically every tourist town in America wrestling with the same concerns, it doesn't require a great deal of independent thinking to explore and execute upon more ideas.
What we shouldn't do—and what we don't want to see from local leadership—is the ostrich-with-its-head-in-the-sand type of thinking that appears to be on display in the Bend City Council's virtual chambers. This is not just about economics and economic recovery, but a desire to direct the community psyche. We need our local governments to help us transition post-COVID, not to stick their heads in the sand and hope no one shows up. Rather than vilifying Visit Bend, how about engaging the smart minds who brought us the Pledge for the Wild to activate on planning in anticipation of the crowds? It is time to allow them to do the destination management that is certainly just as meaningful, if not more so, as destination marketing.
Our leadership can approach this summer's tourist season angry and fearful—or they can lead in a more measured, thoughtful manner that embraces reality. We hope they choose the right path.