Angie Onyewuchi, president and CEO of Travel Salem, addressed a crowd at the Kroc Center on Nov. 21, 2019. (Mary Louise VanNatta/Special to Salem Reporter)

Travel to the Salem area last year brought in half as much revenue for the local economy as it did in 2019, according to a recent tourism industry report of Salem and the Mid-Willamette Valley.

Compiled by Travel Salem, a nonprofit that promotes local businesses and helps put on conventions, the report is focused on the area’s tourism industry between July 2020 and June 2021.

During that time, the Mid-Willamette Valley’s tourism economy suffered financial loss from the pandemic, last year’s Santiam Canyon wildfires and the ice storm in February.

Salem’s estimated economic impact from travel was $148 million in 2020, dropping from $299.9 million in 2019, the report said. That reflects all revenue associated with travel, including hotel stays.

Across Marion and Polk counties, travel generated $315 million last year, compared to $638 million in 2019. 

“That was just a travesty, devastating,” said Angie Onyewuchi, Travel Salem’s president and chief executive officer.

Employment in the tourism industry dropped from 7,100 jobs in 2019 to 6,050 jobs in 2020, according to a Travel Salem press release issued Dec. 14.

The Salem metro area’s seasonally adjusted unemployment recently fell from 4.4% in October to 4.1% in November after the city added jobs in trade and transportation, professional and business services, and leisure and hospitality, according to data released Tuesday from the Oregon Employment Department.

Salem is now about 3,300 jobs - or 1.9% - below pre-pandemic employment figures in February 2020, the state’s data showed.

“We were able to maintain the majority of our workforce, but we're a service industry,” Onyewuchi said. “We're a high-touch business, and so getting the folks back on the ground to work on our restaurants, to work the front desks at our hotels and clean the rooms, that's still a very difficult thing workforce-wise for our industry.”

The report showed every sector of Marion and Polk counties’ tourism industry took a hit in 2020 compared to 2019, with the largest dropoff being in arts and entertainment, which brought in 76% less at 35.1 million. Food and beverage businesses brought in 51% less at $79.8 million, and total direct travel spending generated 51% less at $315 million.

During the timeframe of the report, Travel Salem’s convention and group services program worked with organizers for three events - the Hoopla 3-on-3 basketball tournament, the USA Softball Girls 14 National and the Miss Oregon Volunteer Pageant - which drew 12,279 attendees in total.

“American travelers during Covid, and we saw this last year as well, were really focusing on the wide open spaces, the natural beauty of destinations,” Onyewuchi said. “We have amazing assets in our region. Unfortunately the wildfires really took a toll on our assets. We have some of our most prized possessions like Opal Creek Wilderness, the Santiam State Forest and parts of the Willamette National Forest that are shut down completely because of wildfires.”

Onyewuchi said the Salem area’s broad mix of businesses softened the financial blows from the pandemic and environmental disasters. “We do leisure, we do group business, we do corporate, government business, sports business, and so we've actually fared pretty decently given all the circumstances over the last couple of years, because we have a lot of different types of visitors that come to this market,” she said.

In 2021, she said some hoteliers had their most successful year on record, which she said speaks to the diversity of the local market.

Among the “highlights” listed in the report under destination development were the show Top Chef on BRAVO being hosted in the Mid-Willamette Valley. The finale aired June 18 at Willamette Valley Vineyards and drew 1.1 million television impressions, 5.2 million digital impressions and 318 social media engagements, according to the report.

For Salem’s tourism industry to bring in the revenue it did before the pandemic, Onyewuchi said international and corporate travel must first return to normal. “Until those do, we’re going to still be treading water a little bit, and with the rollout of the omicron and how that’s really wreaking havoc on the entire world right now … that’s going to hamper our recovery,” she said.

Onyewuchi also said the public perception of Portland being unsafe, largely due to riots and protests, is impacting the entire state. “(Portland is) an amazing destination, it puts Oregon on the map. In conjunction, it puts our destination on the map as well. So we're really banding together as a statewide tourism industry to support Portland and to really collaborate together,” she said.

Economic recovery also hinges on events returning, she said. “Our large sporting events, our large conferences and conventions that bring a lot of folks into the state and showcase all the wonderful things to do here,” she said. “We need to see some recovery in those areas before we can really return to the 2019 levels or more.”

Regarding the economic impacts from travel to the Salem area in 2021, Travel Salem spokeswoman Carissa Benson said they are confident the numbers will show an influx to the economy given the rise in tourism this past year.

“With the assets Salem has to offer visitors and a wide variety of recreational options, we predict positive impacts for Salem and the surrounding communities,” Benson said in an email “As groups, conventions, and events begin to ramp back up in the area – with or without Covid restrictions -  we believe the economy will soon bounce back to 2019 levels."

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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