A survey conducted by the Southern Oregon University Research Center revealed wildfire smoke did not completely ruin tourists' experiences in the region.
The majority of tourists who visited Southern Oregon during past wildfire seasons overwhelmingly plan on returning, though, most of those visitors will be taking future smoke into account.
The survey, conducted at the beginning of this year, sampled perceptions from about 2,000 visitors to locations across Southern Oregon during the smoky summers of 2017 and 2018.
It found about 85% of survey respondents plan on visiting the region again in the future, though maybe not in the late summer.
Dr. Eva Skuratowicz is the director of the Southern Oregon University Research Center. Of the visitors who plan on returning, she says the majority say they will be planning their trips around potential smoke.
“Sixty percent told us they will not visit when there’s smoke from wildfires; 54% said they won’t visit when there’s active wildfires and 21% told us they won’t be coming back in August,” she said. “We have a tourism economy and those are really important things for us to plan around here in this region.”
For the 15% of respondents who said they did not plan to visit Southern Oregon again or are unsure, 40% of that group cited “concerns or experience related to smoke from wildfires.”
Travel Southern Oregon collaborated with the SOU Research Center on the study, administering a grant given by Gov. Kate Brown to the research center.
“We wanted to help tourism businesses begin to get the information they need to make strategic decisions going forward in an environment that may or may not continue to be impacted in that same way,” said Bob Hackett, associate director of Travel Southern Oregon.
Last summer’s smoke resulted in 26 canceled or impacted performances at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival — a $2 million revenue loss.
Crater Lake National Park also saw a 14% decrease in visitors in July and August in comparison to previous summers.
“We certainly found that when people are here when there’s smoke, they shorten their vacation; they stay indoors; they go to other areas of Oregon,” Skuratowicz said. “So, people are responding in the moment to what the situation is.”
The study doesn’t prescribe any specific solutions or suggestions, but Hackett said it’s a good way to give businesses a chance to look at visitors’ concerns.
He also said it was encouraging to see how “resilient” visitors were in wanting to return.
“I think we’re in a West Coast environment where there is a certain sense of a new normal and any dream of a landscape with no smoke – I don’t think people hold any illusions about that,” Hackett said.
In the survey, visitors also expressed potentially visiting outside of the typical tourist season during the summer.
“There is a clear interest in coming to Southern Oregon in the spring or the fall,” Hackett said. “So, that’s the kind of thing that we want to share with businesses.”
These findings could potentially apply to other areas in the state, he said.
“We really are working as a state tourism entity to begin to measure the impacts on the whole Oregon visitor economy with the new situation with wildfire smoke,” Hackett said.