Dugan discusses the challenging position Visit Bend is in right now: It is mandated through a City contract to promote tourism, and the state requires that it spends most of its marketing dollars on campaigns to lure overnight guests to Bend. Simultaneously, the Bend City Council has passed multiple “strong advisories” against recreational travel to the region to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, tourism businesses, which employ around 17% of the workforce in Bend, are struggling to stay afloat and recoup their devastating losses over the last four months. In short, Dugan has many different interest groups to answer to at the same time.
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On top of immediate concerns, tourism in Central Oregon has grown increasingly controversial over the past decade as the snowball effect of more room tax collections has led to ever more sophisticated marketing campaigns, drawing thousands of visitors from all over the world. Some visitors want to move here, which has contributed to the rise in rents and home prices. This in turn, has made it more difficult for middle and lower wage Bend workers to afford the cost of living.
“When I took this job four years ago, one of my goals was to figure out a way to start thinking about the impact of this industry on our community, not just from an economic development standpoint, but from a sustainability standpoint to address the social and environmental impacts,” Dugan said.
He created the program Pledge for the Wild which began in Bend and spread to 15 other communities throughout the West. It promotes outdoor principals and responsible tourism tips, and provides a mobile donation program to benefit the Deschutes Trails Coalition.
Dugan explained that the City gets 70% of the transient room tax that tourists pay when they stay in lodging properties within the city limits. Visit Bend is allocated 30%, and Dugan believes the management and responsibility for tourists needs to be shared equally among partners. Some people in Bend have suggested that the City spend tourism marketing dollars on other things, but Dugan said this would require a much larger discussion at the state and city level, and would need to include the many different businesses who benefit from the current arrangement.
Finally, we dove into the issue of scapegoating out-of-town visitors and the way that it has become socially acceptable in Bend to bash tourists, leave mean notes on their cars, and attack them on social media.
“This is the part that's taken the biggest emotional toll on me in the last few weeks,” Dugan said. “You know, I get the broad dialogue around managing this health crisis and I get that there are decisions that need to be made to keep this community healthy, but the way in which we have turned that word [tourist] into a curse word and sort of given the green light to the community to take their own action has been frustrating. I think there's a level of decency that we owe to each other.”
“Bend Don’t Break” is hosted by the Source Weekly’s publisher Aaron Switzer. Every week, Switzer invites on a someone from the community with a new perspective on living through the COVID-19 pandemic including mental health professionals, economists, artists, business people, local leaders and historians. Subscribe on iTunes, Soundcloud or wherever you get your podcasts.
WATCH: Full interview with Kevney Dugan: