Pacific Northwest
Eventually, the rough edges of Tillamook County become what set it delightfully apart. wweek.com

Column: Adjusting the course of tourism for long-term sustainability

Tourism is the lifeblood of many coastal communities. Businesses depend on visitors and traffic means money. That's not always what the year-round residents want and thus there is tension. Balancing economic interests on the American shoreline is a constant process. (Peter Ravella, Publisher, CNT/ASPN).

Tilamook County, Oregon -- Did you know that tourism in Tillamook County is a $240.1 million industry, and it supports 2,200 full-time jobs? That’s significant, and makes it one of the top economic drivers, along with farming, food processing, timber, fishing, healthcare and education.

Visitor spending in our county not only helps lodging owners, restaurateurs, retailers, produce farmers, cultural centers and small commercial fisheries to thrive, it enables the county to have stable services we all depend on, such as gas stations, grocery stores, even furniture stores and lumber yards.

However, tourism is an emotional hot button for some people, and that’s easy to understand. They don’t want to see strangers using a favorite trail, secret beach or fishing hole, especially after a lifetime of feeling like those special places were all their very own. Change, both in a growing population and in having more visitors, can be hard.

There’s also a lot of concern (and not just in Tillamook County) that too many travelers will damage our environment and drain natural resources. Those impacts have happened in many places around the world. Iceland, Amsterdam, Venice and many U.S. national parks are experiencing the effects of “over-tourism.”

Tourism in Tillamook County is still far below the level of “over-tourism” that is stressing those places, which gives us breathing room to address concerns now. That’s why the Board of County Commissioners recently contracted with a sustainable tourism expert, as commissioners seek the proper tools for supporting the tourism industry and local communities while protecting sensitive environments.

Fortunately for Visit Tillamook Coast, our Tourism 2025 plan — developed in 2014 — addressed sustainable tourism practices. The Tourism Advisory Committee and the Economic Development Council worked together to create a meaningful charter for our tourism organization. The charter includes four guiding principles:

1. Develop the tourism industry in ways that are socially, culturally and ecologically responsible, particularly in support of nature-based activities and complementary interests.

2. Prioritize growth in tourism that improves economic conditions in the shoulder and off seasons, and supports the economic stability of the workforce.

3. Improve communities’ abilities to better accommodate tourists and the visitor experience with new, enhanced or better use of tourism-related facilities for increased year-round use.

4. Inspire growth in new and traditional industries to support the long-term priorities of county tourism

Everything we do at Visit Tillamook Coast, from promotions to wayfinding to business and community development, is driven by these guidelines. However, the benchmarks that were initially created to measure Visit Tillamook Coast’s success have been focused on growth — getting more visitors here. That was the right thing to do in 2014, as the transient lodging tax was new, and the Oregon Coast was just recovering from the recession.

We’ve been fortunate to ride a strong economic wave these last few years, as more people have discretionary income to travel, not just once a year, but several times a year. And tourism growth in the non-peak seasons (October through May) has helped stabilize employment.

What we all want

During the recent community meetings facilitated by the Tillamook County Futures Council, citizens expressed their concerns about the impacts of tourism on community livability, and through a survey and “Think Tank” meetings, showed a desire for sustainable, collaborative destination management.

The tourism industry wants that too.

For the last 18 months, Travel Oregon has met with community and tourism leaders from Tillamook and Clatsop counties on a regional approach to destination management along the north coast.  “Think Tank” participants went through the same exercises this year in Tillamook County. The results were nearly identical: People want investment in infrastructure and protection for sensitive environments.

The Travel Oregon sessions resulted in the formation of a regional collaboration — the North Coast Tourism Management Network — and I was chosen to lead the effort as network coordinator. The leadership committee consists of concerned citizens plus representatives from the Oregon Department of Transportation, Col-Pac (the regional economic development group), environmental organizations, chambers of commerce, local transportation managers, tourism directors, city council members and a Clatsop County commissioner.

We formed several task force groups. Three of them designed initial projects that will not only help manage peak tourist months (June 15 to Sept. 15), but also educate visitors about protecting our environment.

• The Transportation Options team will launch a pilot program in Cannon Beach, working with lodging owners to create incentives for visitors to use public transportation, not only in getting to the coast, but also during their stay.

• The Outdoor Access team is developing a trailhead and beach ambassador program to divert visitors from over-used areas to nearby trails and beaches to reduce the crowding pressure. They will focus efforts at Ecola State Park, Cape Falcon, Rockaway Beach and Cape Kiwanda.

• The Environmental Stewardship team is developing a “Care for Our Coast” communications plan, focusing on ways to educate both locals and visitors on safety, environmental protection and awareness.

 Funding for these projects is contributed by Astoria Warrenton Chamber of Commerce, City of Seaside, Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce, Visit Tillamook Coast and Oregon Coast Visitors Association, plus a grant from Travel Oregon.

Going forward

As for Visit Tillamook Coast, we are now a 501(c)(6) organization with a new 11-member tourism board. I’ve asked the board members to set new benchmark measurements, which I call the “Three R’s.” These metrics will better reflect what we’ve been working on since 2014:

• Return on Investment (visitor spending)

• Return on Relationships (community and business development)

• Return on Responsibility (destination management and environmental stewardship).

These three areas overlap in many ways, and they all pertain to our focus areas: outdoor recreation and education, culinary/agritourism, and cultural heritage.

I’m looking forward to collaborating with the community, commissioners and tourism industry, here and on the north coast, to help shape tourism as both a vital and sustainable economy that benefits our citizens.

Questions? Please email me: nan@tillamookcoast.com

See Tillamook Headlight-Herald article . . .