Think Out Loud

Travel commission report shows Oregon tourism surpassing pre-pandemic levels in many places

By Allison Frost (OPB)
June 2, 2023 10:19 p.m. Updated: June 5, 2023 7:55 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, June 5

Whale watching off the Oregon Coast is a perennial tourism draw, both for Oregonians and out-of-state and international tourists. In most parts of the state, tourism levels are above where they were in 2019, pre-pandemic.

Whale watching off the Oregon Coast is a perennial tourism draw, both for Oregonians and out-of-state and international tourists. In most parts of the state, tourism levels are above where they were in 2019, pre-pandemic.

Courtesy of Oregon State Parks / Courtesy of Oregon State Parks


Tourism all over Oregon saw a big jump last year, both from in-state and out-of-state visitors. And in some categories, activities reached new highs. That’s according to a recent report released by Travel Oregon, the state’s tourism commission. We talk with CEO Todd Davidson about what this means for Oregon communities, and the agency’s strategy to support sustainable growth in the industry over the next decade.

The following transcript was created by computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Tourism all over Oregon saw a big jump last year, both from in-state and out of state visitors. In some categories, activities reached new highs but travel in the Portland area is still lagging behind pre-pandemic levels. This is all according to a new report released by Travel Oregon, the State’s Tourism Commission. Todd Davidson is a CEO of Travel Oregon, he joins us to talk about the lingering effects of the pandemic and Portland’s reputational hit along with projections for tourism in Oregon, going forward. Welcome back to Think Out Loud.

Todd Davidson: Thank you, Dave. Good to be with you today.

Miller: It’s great to have you on. So 2021 was a lot more pandemic affected than last year, 2022. So it’s not exactly a surprise that there would have been an increase in tourism last year. What did surprise you in the numbers?

Davidson: You’re absolutely spot on, Dave, that there’s no surprise in the resiliency of the travel and tourism industry. What surprised me the most was maybe the strength of that resiliency. In other words, how much the recovery was realized. I think it’s important to remember where we were –  in 2019, tourism was a $12.8 billion industry for the state of Oregon. The next year, 6.5 billion, literally cut in half. Then we grew back to about 10.8 billion and then last year to reached 13.9 billion. So not only back to pre-pandemic, but a billion dollars ahead of pre-pandemic levels. That strength of that resiliency was a little bit of a surprise to me. So based on knowing our international wasn’t fully back yet and not all air service is back yet. So that was a big surprise for me.

Miller: I wanna make sure I understand the numbers you mentioned because I saw one chart in the report showing that if you adjust for inflation, statewide travel spending in 2022 is still below pre pandemic levels, around where it was in 2016. And that seems like an important thing to adjust for, right?

Davidson: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, when I talk about that $13.9 billion figure, I say there’s two primary influences behind that. One is the increasing demand for travel to and within the state of Oregon. The other is the inflationary pressures that the US economy and candidly the global economy have realized over the past couple of years. So to be back at 13.9 billion was the element that perhaps caused the greatest surprise for me. But the overall strength of the recovery so far has been very solid and very encouraging in terms of indicating the resiliency of the industry for Oregon.

Miller: If you look at the Portland area, in particular, Portland saw the biggest gain in tourism and spending from 2021 to 2022. But my understanding is it also saw the biggest drop in the worst year and a half or so of the pandemic. How big a drop was it?

Davidson: It was significant and that is correct that Portland saw the strongest recovery regionally in 2022 over 2021. They also saw the greatest decline during the pandemic. When you look at the fact that Oregon went from about 13 billion to 6.5 billion between 2019 and 2020, that’s about a 50% drop. Visitor spending in Portland was down about 70%. And so when you have 40 some percent, roughly, of all visitor spending in Oregon occurring in the Portland region, that 70% decline was significant in terms of its overall impacts as well on the state economy.

Miller: Before the pandemic, when I would tell people in other states that I was from Portland, the most common response I got was, ‘Wow, I’ve heard it’s amazing,’ or, ‘I visited once and I’d love to go back.’ I traveled, just recently, and when I told people where I was from over and over people would ask if it was overridden with crime or if it was just wall to wall homeless tents. These are issues we’ve talked a lot about on this show including today. The reality is way more complicated than what might filter through peoples’ consciousness in New York City or Wichita.

But we are talking about a real reputational hit to the city based on some things that are objectively true. Can you counteract that with a travel campaign or do you just have to weather it and wait for circumstances to change?


Davidson: The reality in any kind of advertising or branding effort is that marketing and advertising will only get you so far. A brand is what your customers say about you. That is your brand. What is it that lives in the minds of your customers? Our friends and colleagues at Travel Portland will acknowledge that there was a… and has been a reputational hit during COVID, with homelessness, with crime.

However, what I’m also seeing that has me bullish on Portland is the fact that through all that, certainly from a leisure travel standpoint - So here you’re looking at the average US consumer looking for where they wanna go for their vacation. Portland is still showing up on lists of places to go in 2023 in major business and travel publications. They’ve secured the National Education Association Conference. They’ve secured the Women’s Final Four in 2030. The restaurant scene is coming back in… some of the most written up restaurants in the nation are in Portland. The Ritz Carlton is opening this year.

So there’s still plenty of reason to be optimistic and hopeful for the future, while realizing that there has been that reputational hit and we’ve got to meet people where they are and be honest about where we were, what the plans are and where we’re going.

Miller: What does it mean for the statewide travel and tourism booster to be honest about where we are? I mean, you’re not journalists. Your job is to get people to come here. So I’m just curious what it means when you say you have to be honest about where we are. What would you tell the Ophthalmologists’ Conference? Like, why should they come here now?

Davidson: Yeah. Well more often than not, we and others are relaying what it is that we’re hearing from journalists and others that we’ve had here. We’re bringing journalists into the state and they’re experiencing Portland as well as other regions of Oregon. We’ve brought tour operators in and not just domestic but also international. We’ve heard from some of them that they wanted to come because they wanted to see Portland for themselves. They were very pleasantly surprised.

So there’s this idea too about how much has been built up in the press. You’re right. I’m not a journalist but how much of it has been built up in the press and has become, for that reason, you know, it’s where the reputational damage is living and needs to be counteracted. Versus what is reality and reality is bringing the journalists in, bringing the tour operators in. Not from across the country, but from around the world as well to experience Portland firsthand and be able to give you that honest assessment. And it’s not perfect yet.

There are plans and steps and we’re seeing things that are being contemplated in City Hall right now about ways to address the homeless situation in Portland and the camping situation generally. So there are things that are being done. We’re hopeful that with those efforts and people being able to come and experience Portland and Oregon, that will counteract that.

One thing I’d point out is, Portland has been running [surveys] throughout the pandemic and with that reputational perception issue out there, with folks that had been visiting Oregon and they find an incredibly positive intent to return, which is a very, very good sign for Portland as well. So again, we’re close to it. We live here. It may not feel like the Portland we remember from ‘X’ number of years ago but I believe it will be again and that’s why I remain bullish on Portland.

Miller: But if we look at the demographics of travelers, it seems like according to the report there has been a shift to more internal travel. Oregonians visiting different parts of the state. Certainly that was absolutely the case in 2020 and 2021, but it seems like that has continued and a big drop in international travelers. I think a drop in out-of-state travelers as well, at least a smaller percentage still than pre-pandemic. How do you think about the significance of that change in demographics?

Davidson: I think part of it is really diving into the visitor spending numbers a little bit more deeply. Oregon has always had a significant segment of the visitor spending being Oregonians traveling in Oregon. We love it here. We love our state. We love the diversity of our state. We may be folks that always wanna flock to the coast or flock to the mountains or we’re folks that wanna mix it up and experience different parts of the state, different seasons of the year, differences over the course of different years. But Oregonians love to get out and experience their own state. So to see roughly 40% of visitor spending in 2022 coming from in-state visitors, wasn’t surprising to me. It’s always been a significant amount. It’s ranged from 35 to 45% over the years. So 40% doesn’t surprise me. 60% out of state and international, also feels about right. The number that is definitely down, as a percentage, is international.

The reason I say it’s not as much a surprise, it was actually to be expected, is because we hadn’t seen the opening of the Asia markets, which are key to Oregon’s international visitation. We didn’t see the opening of those until very late in 2022 and we have yet to see the return of our international nonstop air service to Asia. So our flights to Europe are back and stronger. Flights to Canada, back and stronger. Flights to Mexico are back and strong. But to not have that Asia influx, where we’ve had strong visitation historically from Japan and Korea and China, does suppress the international visitor spending percentage.

Normally we’d be running close to 12% all international, both North America – Canada, Mexico – as well as our overseas inbound international run about 12%; one out of every eight dollars spent in Oregon would be from an international visitor. Last year was five. But again, not a big surprise to me given where we were with just the Asia markets and candidly here in the US. We didn’t even lift our restrictions for vaccines and the like until May of this year. So now the pieces are kind of in place just to hopefully stimulate demand from Asia. See the return of international air service, which will hopefully culminate in increased visitor spending from those markets that have been lagging since the pandemic hit.

Miller: Todd Davidson, thanks very much for joining us once again. I appreciate it.

Davidson: My pleasure, Dave. Good to be with you today.

Miller: Todd Davidson is the CEO of Travel Oregon. He joined us to talk about the big increase in travel and tourism statewide from 2021 to 2022.

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