Business & economy, Outdoors

Local leaders regroup on tourism revenue, strategy, impact

Public officials mulled drawing more visitors to Malheur County in a series of meetings last week across the county. 

Drawing more visitors to the area to take in the desert night sky, mountain bike the county’s dirt roads and learn about Vale’s historic murals were among the discussion topics at the sessions.

The Eastern Oregon Visitors Association and the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce hosted the first meeting on Monday, November 6, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Vale Senior Center and Tuesday, November 7, from 10 a.m. to noon at Four Rivers Cultural Center and then from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. 

The purpose of the meeting, according to Tom Vialpando, Vale’s mayor, was to share information about trends in tourism in Malheur County and the state, focusing on eastern Oregon.

During the meeting, Vialpando on said they discussed how the Oregon outback’s 11 million acres of dark skies, comprised of Lake, Harney and Malheur Counties, typically attract overnight visitors. Those tourists, he said, end up spending money at hotels and restaurants. 

The group discussed making the region more of a destination for night sky visitors. According to Travel Oregon, Malheur County had 1.2 million overnight visitors in 2022, while average overnight spending in 2022 was $1,200. 

Another emerging activity around eastern Oregon the group talked about is gravel mountain biking, Vialpando said. The Eastern Oregon Visitors Association has seen more people map out trails and routes to share online with others. He said the association is looking for ways to promote gravel mountain biking in the state, but right now, it’s vague about how they would do that. However, he said, there are a lot of gravel roads in the county. 

Vialpando said he got a tip on a $7,000 grant through the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association to put quick-response, or QR, codes for visitors to scan on their cell phones, taking them to a webpage, telling the story of a particular mural. 

According to John Breidenbach, chief executive of the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce, the three meetings drew around 20 people apiece. He said in about two weeks, the association would share a detailed report about tourism in eastern Oregon and Malheur County. 

According to Travel Oregon’s website data, total direct travel spending – including destination and other travel – for Malheur County in 2022 was $68.8 million. According to the data, travel in the county grew by just over 30% from 2021 to 2022. 

Vialpando said it’s crucial to strengthen tourism is in Vale and give people a reason to visit, whether it is the town’s murals, the RV park that just opened, or the area’s restaurants.  “We have different things that people can enjoy in Vale,” he said. “But, we don’t have a stoplight here. We have to give the folks a reason to stop.”  

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