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Often Overshadowed by Summer, Oregon's Winter Tourism is Big Business
by Damon Runberg
Published Mar-25-2013

Oregon is known as a major tourism destination of the West with its scenic natural beauty, recreational opportunities, historical legacy, and festivals. Tourism during the warm temperate summers draws the largest crowds to the state. Activities and sites to see during the summer abound. A few of these activities include wine tasting in the Willamette Valley, shopping in Portland, walking on sandy beaches along the coast, hiking or beer tours in Central Oregon, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the quaint Southern Oregon community of Ashland, and wind surfing in the Columbia Gorge. The winter tourism season in Oregon is often overshadowed by the diverse activities and opportunities of the summer. However, winter tourism in Oregon is big business.

The primary driver of winter tourism in Oregon is the snowsports industry, which has a significant impact on the economy of Oregon. Oregon does not have the notoriety of Colorado, California, or British Columbia as a winter tourism destination with large developed resort areas, such as Vail, Squaw Valley, and Whistler-Blackcomb. However, Oregon has one of the deepest and most consistent snow packs in North America with the longest ski season in the country. A recent report released by the University of Oregon's Community Service Center and ECONorthwest highlight both the direct and indirect impact of winter tourism, specifically snowsports, on Oregon's economy.

Tourism in Oregon
There is no formal industry classification for the travel and tourism industry. However, according to the travel and tourism research firm Dean Runyan Associates, the sector includes businesses in a variety of industries including accommodation and food services; leisure and hospitality; travel and transportation; and retail trade. Leisure and hospitality is often used as a proxy for the tourism industry as it encompasses approximately three-quarters of the total tourism employment.

In 2012, Oregon's employment during the summer tourism season (June-August) was approximately 7 percent higher than the winter tourism season (December 2011-February 2012) in the leisure and hospitality industry, as well as the subset of leisure called accommodation and food services. The 2012 tourism season was in-line with the 10-year norm, where employment averaged 7 percent lower in the winter compared with the summer tourism season (Graph 1).

Locally, employment between the two tourism seasons varies more than the state average. For instance, employment in leisure and hospitality for the Oregon Coast was 19 percent lower in the first quarter (winter) of 2011 than the third quarter (summer). Southern Oregon was 12 percent lower, the Willamette Valley 10 percent lower, and the Portland Metro area was 7 percent lower. Perhaps most surprising was Central Oregon, a region known for winter recreation, where the winter leisure and hospitality employment in 2011 was 17 percent lower than the summer employment. In addition to having lower levels of employment, average wages in leisure and hospitality are also lower in the winter season compared with the summer. Average wages range from being approximately 19 percent lower on the Oregon Coast in the winter to 8 percent lower in the Portland Metro area.

Graph 1
Oregon's leisure and hospitality employment higher in the summer
Winter Activities in Oregon
In Oregon, winter tourism is primarily limited to snowsports in the Cascade Range. One noticeable difference between Oregon and other states with large ski resorts is the lack of base area development, such as on-mountain lodging. Timberline Lodge provides the only on-mountain lodging in Oregon, and even that has limited lodging space of only 70 guest rooms. According to the Oregon Skier Profile and Economic Impact Analysis, a recent report jointly published by the University of Oregon's Community Service Center and ECONorthwest, this lack of base area development has resulted in the growth of gateway communities that sit on the major transportation routes to and from ski resorts. These communities include Bend (Mt. Bachelor), Sandy (Mt. Hood Resorts), Hood River (Mt. Hood Resorts), Oakridge (Willamette Pass), Sisters (Hoodoo Resort), Ashland (Mt. Ashland), and La Grande (Anthony Lakes Ski Area).

Gateway communities receive a large economic boost in the winter as a result of their proximity to ski resorts, specifically lodging facilities, restaurants, outdoor and ski shops, and retail stores. In fact, according to the Oregon Skier Profile, some of the more popular non-snowsport activities that destination ski visitors participate in include shopping, fine dining, sightseeing, craft beer tours, movies, festivals, and wine tasting.

The total number of snowsports participants in Oregon is staggering. In the 2010-11 winter season, the University of Oregon estimated that approximately 178,600 skiers resulted in just under two million visits to Oregon ski resorts. The vast majority of these visitations (80%) were by day visitors or those who spend a day participating in a snowsport and return home to their primary residence at the end of the day. The remaining 20 percent were destination visitors or those who spend one or more nights and two or more days consecutively skiing or snowboarding away from their primary residence. Although the total number of destination skiers is relatively low compared with the number of day visitors, proportionally their economic impact is far greater than day visitors (Table 1). According to the survey, the 20 percent of Oregon skiers who are destination visitors account for 40 percent of all direct spending, primarily due to much higher off mountain spending than day visitors.

Table 1
Destination Skiers Spend More Per Visit
Expenditure Category Total Spending Percent of Total
Ski Equipment $49,586,902 16%
Day Skiers    
 off mountain $67,272,925 22%
 on mountain $71,435,384 23%
Total day skiers $138,708,310 45%
Destination Skiers    
 off mountain $68,472,107 22%
 on mountain $54,477,061 18%
Total destination skiers $122,949,168 40%
Total All Categories $311,244,379 100%
Source: University of Oregon Skier Survey, 2010-2011 ski season
Economic Impact of Winter Tourism
Although the economic impact of the tourism industry declines in the winter, it is still a very important driver for Oregon's economy. In December 2012, about 163,400 individuals were employed in the leisure and hospitality industry in Oregon, which was an over-the-year increase of 1.4 percent. This industry accounted for one-tenth of Oregon's total nonfarm employment in December.

When looking specifically at the economic impact of the snowsports industry, the University of Oregon's Community Service Center estimated that the industry creates a total economic output of around $480 million, personal income of more than $190 million and employs nearly 6,800 individuals (Table 2). The report also highlighted the multiplier effect of the snowsports industry. For instance, every $1 million in ski spending generates an additional $900,000 in spending somewhere else in Oregon. In addition to having a spending multiplier there is also an employment multiplier in Oregon's snowsports industry. The report found that every 10 jobs in the ski industry are on average linked to another four jobs elsewhere in the state.

Table 2
Total Economic Impact of Oregon's Snowsports Industry (2010-2011 Season)
Impact Measure   Total
Economic Output   $481,620,000
Personal Income   $194,383,000
Jobs   6,772
Source: University of Oregon Skier Survey, 2010-2011 ski season.
Future Outlook of Winter Tourism in Oregon
The tourism industry in Oregon is in good shape relative to other industries that are still recovering from the recession. An indicator frequently used to measure the strength of the tourism industry is lodging room revenue (transient room tax collections). One of Oregon's primary winter and summer tourism hot spots, Bend, experienced record high lodging room revenue in the summer tourism season in 2012 (Graph 2). June and August hit historical highs for transient room tax collections, whereas July essentially matched the all-time high set in 2011. Bend has also had a historic winter season up to this point. December 2012 was a historic high for the transient room tax collections for that month; however it is important to note that Mt. Bachelor received very heavy snowfall during the month, possibly resulting in higher than normal visitations.

Overall, the winter tourism season in Oregon, specifically the snowsports industry, has a large impact on the economy. The impact of the snowsports industry is likely to rise in the coming years as the popularity of skiing, snowboarding, cross country skiing, and snow shoeing has been growing over the past decade. According to SnowSports Industries America (SIA), national participation in snowsports has increased year-over-year with the exception of the winter of 2011-12, which had the lowest national average snowfall since the early 1990s (Graph 3). However, last season's low-snow year nationally likely had a positive impact on the local snowsports industry as most of the resorts throughout Oregon recorded above average snowfall. For instance, Mt. Bachelor in Central Oregon received 528 inches of snow in 2011-12, which was almost 12 feet greater than their season average. Snowsports participants are known for "chasing powder," which could have resulted in a substitution effect, where those skiers and snowboarders who would normally ski in other parts of the country instead visited Oregon.

Graph 2
2012 lodging room revenue in Bend reached all-time high
Graph 3
Popularity of snow sports on the rise nationally
The snowsports industry and winter tourism are major contributors to Oregon's economy. However, as was seen nationally in the winter of 2011-12 the industry is susceptible to external forces, such as snowfall and temperature. By its very nature the snowsports industry is a boom or bust industry. However, due to the growing national popularity of snowsports, the Pacific Northwest's consistent snowpack, expanding employment in tourism industries during the winter, and record lodging revenue, the long-term outlook for Oregon's winter tourism looks bright.

For more information about the snowsports industry in Oregon, visit Ski Oregon's website ( www.skioregon.org/blog.php?id=278), to access the Oregon Skier Profile and Economic Impact Analysis created by the University of Oregon's Community Service Center and ECONorthwest.