SOU study finds minimal effects of wildfire smoke on regional tourism

ASHLAND, Ore.– Wildfires and smoke in the summer may be hurting local business but many tourists still want to come back to visit the Rogue Valley. They just may not come back during the peak of fire season.

That’s according to a new study just released by the Southern Oregon University Research Center (SOURCE) and Travel Southern Oregon which took a look at visitor perceptions from the last two years on whether they would traveling back to the region or not.

Still, enormous wildfires and blankets of smoke have caused massive headaches for the southern Oregon tourism industry but the study paints a positive outlook for what has been a grim situation for many. But if there’s anything people can take away from this study, it’s that wildfires and smoke aren’t chasing everyone away.

“We were very encouraged by that survey that the vast majority of people didn’t think that last years smoke would impede them from coming back,” said Michael Biggs, hotel manager for the Peerless Hotel in Ashland, one of many regional attractions and hotels the study collected contacts from.

From thousands of contacts, the study was able to receive a randomly selected group of 1,905 people who responded to the survey. In that group, 85 percent said they would return to southern Oregon.

However of that percent, 72 percent said they would take wildfire and smoke into account if they planned on visiting again.

“In other words, smoke is a factor but it’s not turned them off from coming back, they generally love southern Oregon,” said Dr. Karen Miller-Loessi, senior research associate with the center.

Dr. Eva Skuratowicz also saw positive outcomes from the study.

“They recognize that the West Coast, they’re going to have to be flexible in their plans,” she said. “I think they’re looking at how to change their travels so they can be flexible and respond to local conditions.”

That’s what places like the Peerless Hotel are seeing already. Bookings have remained steady this year with guests taking that extra step around peak fire season.

“August looks a little bit quieter than it generally does,” said Biggs. “People also don’t book as far in advance as they used to. Fifteen years ago, people would plan a year in advance and we’ve discovered that our guest tend to be more six weeks out.”

The results were mostly positive but in an open comment section surveyors still highlighted concerns such as health and planning. Some wanted to see more detailed information about smoke and wildfires which isn’t always easy to provide.

“Sometimes I do get the questions from guests what are we expecting,” said Biggs. “None of us know. We are planning for the best.”

Still, with news that visitors are flexible and excited about visiting the region again – there’s reason for optimism.

“Really, really encouraged by most of the folks saying that the smoke wasn’t going to stop them from seeing our beautiful town again,” said Biggs.

The study surveyed popular spots from Crater Lake to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The findings have even been shared with Oregon’s congressional leadership in Washington D.C.

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