Last Thursday, Aug. 18, the City Club of Central Oregon held a forum titled "Tourism or Tourisn't: Is the Juice of a Tourist Economy Worth the Squeeze?" Some of the area's most influential citizens gathered to discuss the "branding, promotion, and impact of tourism" on the local economy. Panelists included a regional economist from the State of Oregon, the City of Bend's Economic Development Director, and the President and CEO of VisitBend.
One of the first slides in the presentation posed the question: Is tourism worth it?
While it might seem like a valid question—and one that's bandied about among both recent transplants and longtime Benditos—in reality, the point of the question is moot.
Strong, high-impact tourism is here to stay. It's a vital and integral part of our economy, and asking ourselves whether we have the option to simply put the brakes on tourism is akin to having a second child, realizing he's kind of a handful, and then asking yourself whether you should have had that kid at all. You can't take the kid back to the hospital, and you can't return all of the assets that have turned Central Oregon into a growing destination for travel.
As it stands today, 35 percent of the money coming from the Transient Lodging Tax—the money gleaned from people who rent hotels and temporary lodgings in Bend—goes toward the promotion of tourism and our cultural assets. Because of a state law passed in 2003, that breakdown can't easily be altered. It can be altered by the legislature—it can't be altered by VisitBend.
As the City of Bend's economic development director Carolyn Eagan so aptly pointed out during the forum, the Bend City Council made the decision in 2002 about how much money is directed toward the city's general fund versus how much is directed toward tourism promotion. If there was a time to weigh in about the advent of widespread tourism in Central Oregon—and to influence how the tourism dollars were allocated—it was back then, when the ale trail was only a twinkle in Bend craft brewers' eyes.
It's up to the citizens of our area—and the local leaders we elect—to shape the impact of tourism and how tourism dollars are spent at the city level. With issues including increased crime, congestion and resource degradation a result of tourism, there's no doubt that managing it responsibly should be at the fore of our minds.
We still feel it was short-sighted as a community to vote down a gas tax. A gas tax is one of the best methods for collecting tourist dollars when you do not have a sales tax to fall back on. With Benditos resisting the idea of a gas tax, government leaders will need to get their collective heads around an idea that we all can live with to fund the impacts of tourism. We hope to hear a good deal of conversation around this from candidates in the upcoming election. The individual faces of the tourists in our area might change from day to day, but as a faceless mass, they're here to stay.