OPB Think Out Load Interview: Sustainable Tourism Lab measures how residents weigh pros, cons of tourism in their communities

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
Jan. 5, 2023 5:23 p.m.
View or listen to the full interview here:

According to the Oregon Tourism Commission, tourism is a $10 billion industry in Oregon, generating $1.2 billion in local and state tax revenue in 2021. But a report from Oregon State University’s Sustainable Tourism Lab found residents often aren’t educated on tourism policies that affect their communities.

The lab was founded in 2021 to help communities create tourism plans that balance the needs of residents and visitors, a key feature of sustainability, according to the lab’s researchers. It recently released its first annual report, which aimed to measure how people in eight locations, including Oregon, Washington and Hawaii, feel about tourism in their communities. Todd Montgomery, director of OSU’s Sustainable Tourism Lab, joins us to tell us more about the report’s findings.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. According to the Oregon Tourism Commission, tourists spent nearly $11 billion in Oregon in 2021, generating over a billion dollars in local and state tax revenue. But tourism also generates backlash, misgivings about traffic, environmental degradation or changes to what makes a place special to begin with. The Sustainable Tourism Lab at Oregon State University is studying the ways that tourist locations can thread this needle and can be a net positive. Todd Montgomery is the director of the lab. He joins us to talk about sustainable tourism and the results of a recent survey of people in eight Pacific Northwest and Pacific Island communities. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Todd Montgomery: Thanks for having me.

Miller: There are a few different ways to think about sustainable tourism so I thought we could start by breaking them down. What does it mean economically?

Montgomery: That’s what most people see as the benefit to tourism.

It’s a financial impact, it’s jobs, it’s business, it’s really just the economic viability of the community and just one economic driver of that community.

Miller: What about environmental sustainability when it comes to tourism?

Montgomery: Well, most tourist destinations, particularly in the Northwest, exist because of something that nature or the environment provides—snow or a mountain or river or beach. So when we think about sustainable tourism, we’re thinking about preserving those sites and those interests for future generations of both community and travelers alike.

Miller: And then there’s maybe the hardest one to wrap one’s head around is what sustainability means in terms of just a community more broadly. How do you think about that?

Montgomery: The community pieces, in some ways, are just as important as those other two. The community is the host, it’s their town, their people, their friends, their family, the activities that they do and making sure that the community is seeing benefits to tourism and not just a certain segment of the community, the entire community, across all iconic and device spectrums. It is important but it’s really just the impact of tourism of letting people into your community and sharing that experience with them.

Miller: You’ve worked in the industry, and now as an academic, for decades now. I’m curious what you’ve seen personally that got you interested in the issue of the sustainability of tourism or tourist locations.

Montgomery: I started my job after undergrad in Asia Pacific with a large corporate hotel chain and one of my jobs was to help identify the next big spot for tourism, the next upcoming destination. And, specifically, my role was to go in there and look at what the pricing capacity for that destination was. What would be the revenue stream, what would the prices that would/could customers afford or be enticing to them?

Through those years that the models that I built, I was recognizing that there was a life cycle to a destination. So just like any product or service, there’s that exploration or discovery, growth, maturity and then something happens after that–rejuvenation, stagnation or decline. And I was seeing that in the pricing data and at the time—this is early 2000s—I was really quite proud of of what I was doing because we visited these sites before development, we would see that these communities were a lot of times in poverty and this was a big economic boom for them.

Miller: Just so I can understand the work you were doing, I’m imagining some island somewhere that has a little bit of tourist infrastructure but maybe not a big fancy resort hotel yet. And it was up to you to say “actually there’s an opportunity here, our investors could make money, this would be a good place and we can charge x amount per room?”

Montgomery: That’s exactly right. So usually it was the dive community because like I said, I was in Asia Pacific, so there was a dive spot or something, a surfing spot, something that that the environment provided. So my job was to go in there and look at that and then support work and work with local leaders to help develop that along with the hotel chain.