'it's the front door to our economy,' Todd Davidson tells Washington County Public Affairs Forum; he rebuts criticism that tourists add to traffic congestion, foster part-time, minimum-wage jobs

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: PETER WONG - Todd Davidson, chief executive of Travel Oregon, speaks Monday, June 4, at a Washington County Public Affairs Forum luncheon in Beaverton.The chief executive of Travel Oregon says the millions of visitors to the state every year bring more than their money – although they do plenty of spending.

Todd Davidson says they bring more favorable attitudes toward going to college in Oregon, living and working here, and even starting businesses.

"It's the front door to our economy," he said Monday, June 4, at a Washington County Public Affairs Forum luncheon.

Visitor spending itself was $11.8 billion in 2017, not quite double the $6.5 billion in 2003, according to Travel Oregon figures.

Davidson also defended the role of tourism and the state's new advertising campaign — "Oregon: Only Slightly Exaggerated" — against the premise of a question posed by Beaverton lawyer John Tyner.

"Do we want more tourists in Oregon?" Tyner asked. "If you talk to folks at the various resorts, they're living in tents and RVs and traveling long distances to get there, and they're not paid much for those jobs. God, I hope this fails.

"What's your defense? We're clogging the roads, burdening services, creating low-paying jobs. This is a recipe for disaster."

The question evoked echoes of then-Gov. Tom McCall's 1971 comment: "Come visit us again and again. This is a state of excitement. But for heaven's sake, don't come here to live."

Response to critics

Davidson's response: "To lay it all on the back of the tourism industry is not accurate."

Though tourism promotes Oregon, he said, population growth is responsible for traffic congestion and higher housing costs — Oregon grew from 3 million in 1993 to 4 million by 2015 — and the end-of-year count of all registered vehicles in 2017 was 4.5 million.

Visitors generate about 20 percent of fuel taxes collected by the state, he said, "but I guarantee you they are not 20 percent of our use of roads."

State and local taxes related to tourism rose from $246 million in 2003 to $539 million in 2017, according to Travel Oregon.

Davidson also said that while the tourist industry generates many part-time, seasonal and minimum-wage jobs, "it's just not accurate" to say they represent all workers.

"But I will make no apology for those jobs," he said. "Every economy needs to have jobs where people can show they have those kinds of maturities and work skills and ready to go to work."

A big share of those jobs — 112,200 statewide in 2017, up from 84,500 in 2003 — are outside the Portland metro area. Employee earnings from tourism in 2017 were $2.8 billion, up from $1.7 billion in 2003.

"These are all legitimate challenges," Davidson said of the traffic and housing issues. "But I hope you are wrong about the success or failure of our advertising campaign."

Increased share

While Oregon's share of the U.S. national market appeared to have grown only marginally, from .97 percent in 2005 to 1.18 percent in 2016, Davidson said that translates into $2.1 billion more for Oregon as the national market grew by a third to just under $1 trillion in 2016.

Davidson's agency is funded through a statewide lodging tax, now at 1.8 percent, which replaced Oregon Lottery proceeds more than a decade ago.

The new $5 million campaign, depicted in a 90-second animation inspired by Hayao Miyazaki, is a successor to previous marketing such as "Oregon: Things Look Different Here" (1988) and "Oregon: We Love Dreamers" (2003), and more recently, "Seven Wonders of Oregon" and "We Like It Here, You Might, Too."

"Every place you see is real," Davidson said of the animation, whose color is reminiscent of "Alice in Wonderland."

Davidson described some of the details of tourism campaigns by the Washington County Visitors Association and others to promote relatively recent developments.

Among them:

• Banks-Vernonia State Trail, Oregon's first rail-to-trail project, developed over two decades.

• Salmonberry Trail, another rail-to-trail project underway to connect Banks with Tillamook.

• The 51-mile Tualatin Valley Scenic Bikeway.

• Trees-to-Sea Scenic Byway, which winds 64 miles through the Tillamook State Forest.

• Vineyard and Valley Scenic Tour Route, 60 miles through the county.

• L.L. "Stub" Stewart State Park, 35 miles west of Portland, which when it opened in 2007 was the first new full-service state park since 1972.

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Other issues

Todd Davidson, chief executive of Travel Oregon, offered his views on other travel issues:

• International visitors to Oregon are up over a five-year stretch: Mexico, 114 percent growth; China, 44 percent; Japan, 38 percent; South Korea, 12 percent.

Canada, however, leads the total number, followed by Japan, China, Great Britain, Germany, Australia, Mexico, South Korea, Scandinavia and France.

Davidson said Oregon is not a first-time destination for foreign visitors, but usually third or fourth.

"Usually, their use of the English language is better" for those visitors, he said. "So it doesn't become as big a barrier for us in Oregon as it may be for others."

• The new Hyatt Regency rising across from the Oregon Convention Center in Portland will add 600 rooms of a projected 2,761 that Travel Portland envisions in the next two or three years.

Davidson said it will allow the metro area to accommodate larger gatherings that bypass Portland because of the lack of a convention-headquarters hotel.

"It will meet pent-up demand that is going to other locations," he said. "We have seen that where a hotel is built, it spurs additional development."

— Peter Wong

Link to Washington County Public Affairs Forum presentation by Todd Davidson on Facebook:

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