Oregon's worst-in-the-nation unemployment rate may be clouding the view, but the outlook for the state's labor-intensive $6.1 billion tourism industry is improving, industry leaders say.
An anemic first quarter had prompted fears that this could be a bad year for tourism-related businesses, one of the state's five biggest economic sectors.
Joe D'Alessandro, executive director of the Portland Oregon Visitors Association, said he's 'cautiously optimistic and hopeful' about tourism in 2003 in spite of the fact that Oregon is still struggling to break free of recession.
But while things are looking up, he cautioned, 'I don't think it's going to be a banner year by any means.'
He cited one encouraging sign: Revenues generated by the city's hotel room tax were expected to be up 3 percent from last year in the fiscal year that ends June 30.
Furthermore, he said, the hospitality industry is looking forward to this weekend's G.I. Joe's 200 auto races, which historically attract a fair share of out-of-towners, many of them big spenders.
The U.S. Women's Open at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, from June 30 to July 6, is expected to provide another boost during a slot on the calendar 'that isn't typically the strongest week of the year for us,' D'Alessandro said.
Added to that, 'the announcement of the Women's World Cup soccer season is huge,' he said. Portland's PGE Park will host matches both in the first round, on Sept. 28, the quarterfinals on Oct. 2 and both semifinals on Oct. 5, a total of six games.
PGE Park's seating capacity will be increased to about 30,000 for the event.
Europeans come flying
Even though a discounted introductory fare on Lufthansa German Airlines' new daily nonstop service between Portland and Frankfurt, Germany, expired May 31, 'the last few weeks have been extremely good,' said Foy Renfro, the airline's Pacific Northwest district sales manager. 'We're very happy with our operations right now.'
Thanks in part to a euro that has strengthened in value against the U.S. dollar, a lot of Europeans ÑÊfrom Switzerland, Italy, France, the Netherlands and Belgium as well as Germany ÑÊare flying Lufthansa to Portland. 'Tourist class is definitely full these days,' Renfro said.
Getting this many European visitors this soon is somewhat of a surprise, D'Alessandro said. 'I think the fact that we're a new destination, and we're getting some good press, helps a lot.'
A leading German newspaper, Der Spiegel, published a flattering article about Portland and the city's welcoming atmosphere about three weeks ago.
This year, Travel & Leisure magazine ranked Portland third on a list of America's favorite cities for summer travel, and the city pops up on Amtrak's Web site as No. 5 on a CondŽ Nast list of seven great Amtrak destinations Ñ 'down-to-earth Portland, Oregon, is a friendly city known for its sprawling parks and bustling galleries, museums, coffeehouses and microbreweries,' the blurb says. It also suggests the Columbia River Gorge, Multnomah Falls and Mount Hood as 'a natural paradise for adventurers.'
Last July, the various Amtrak trains operating between Eugene, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., carried 55,000 passengers ÑÊa figure that doesn't include riders from another long-distance train, the Empire Builder, which offers service between Portland and Chicago.
Train passenger numbers are up about 2 percent this year over last year, said Robert Krebs, passenger rail coordinator for the Oregon Department of Transportation. 'That's not a significant increase, but it's better than other carriers are doing.'
During the summer months, the problem is train capacity, not demand, he said. 'There are not enough seats to take care of demand.'
He said bookings are particularly brisk for the state-supported Lewis & Clark Explorer train, which runs Friday through Monday along the Columbia River between Portland and Astoria. The service is attracting history buffs, rail fans and tour groups as passengers.
RVs, camping prove popular
Many vacationers may be staying closer to home for their leisure travels, but they're still spending money.
A faltering economy 'really doesn't seem to be affecting this business,' said Roland Olinger, president and owner of Olinger Travel Homes, which sells recreational vehicles in Hillsboro and at a new location in Wood Village, adjacent to Interstate 84.
The new Wood Village lot, twice as large as the Olinger site it replaced on Southeast 82nd Avenue, is crowded with more than 200 gleaming RVs, ranging from 'starter' vacation trailers that cost under $20,000 up to diesel-powered motor homes with price tags of about $250,000.
'There's speculation that one of the reasons why the RV business is very strong right now is that people are not flying and are traveling closer to home,' Olinger said. 'They still want to travel and see the world, they just want to stay on the ground to do it.'
Last year was a record year for camping in Oregon state parks, with 2.37 million camper nights recorded. This year looks like another busy one.
'The parks are filling up pretty quick,' said Sheri Miller, who manages the call center at Reservations Northwest for Oregon State Parks.
Portland's hoteliers still are grappling with the economy. With both occupancy rates and average room costs in a steady decline since 2000, hoteliers are 'leveraging every opportunity,' said Deborah Hall Wakefield of the Portland Oregon Visitors Association.
As an example, the number of hotels participating in the association's 'Cool Summer Deals' promotion jumped this year to 42, about a dozen more than in 2002.
'I think part of it is that the economy is so iffy right now that people are looking for every marketing venue that's available,' Wakefield said.
Reports from Smith Travel Research indicate that hotels in the city center and the Lloyd District are doing better than the rest of the Portland market. They registered a 61.3 percent occupancy rate in April 2003, up from 60.9 percent in April 2002, but the entire Portland market showed only a 54.6 occupancy rate in April of this year.
The statistics aren't in yet, but May 'was a really good month for most of the hotels,' Wakefield said.
Still, some hotels have more to deal with. The Governor and the Avalon Hotel & Spa currently are embroiled in foreclosure proceedings, although both hotels are open for business and the legal actions have had no visible effect on daily operations. Their troubles are attributed partly to economic conditions and partly to Portland's hotel building boom, which added about a thousand rooms to the city's total inventory in the last few years.