Gas prices well above $4 a gallon have changed many things in Northeast Oregon, but take heart: the local tourism industry is alive and well.
Staying busy: Jim Hollandsworth makes the rounds at Eagles Hot Lake RV park Monday. Hollandsworth, owner of the park for 3 1/2 years, said business this summer has been good, though a couple of groups canceled reservations because of high fuel prices. - Observer photos/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH
Formal statistics have yet to be compiled, but an informal survey this week by The Observer indicates that tourists in healthy numbers are still finding their way to the Grande Ronde and Wallowa valleys.
Things haven’t changed much, for instance, at the La Grande Rendezvous RV Resort in Bearco Loop in La Grande. Manager Lowell Fuhrman said Tuesday the numbers look about the same this summer as last, when fuel cost about $3 a gallon.
“(The gas crisis) hasn’t affected us too badly yet,” he said. “I think it might hurt us eventually, but just now things are staying about the same.”
Some people taking part in The Observer’s survey said visitors these days are likely to be regional residents. But Fuhrman said campers staying at the Rendezvous come from all over.
He added that the choice of vehicle varies with the customer; he isn’t seeing a trend toward one or the other.
“We see a lot of pickups pulling fifth-wheels and travel trailers, but there are still a lot of RVs on the road, too,” he said.
He added that many Rendezvous Resort campers are lengthening their stays, parking their trailers and RVs for long periods and making day trips in a pickup or a car they’ve towed with them.
One such couple present at the park this week were Art Swynenberg and Deva Dake, retirees from Kennewick.
Each year in early May, they set their travel trailer up at the Rendezvous. They keep it there until October, when they pull it home again.
Swynenberg said they have been camping in this manner for years, though they used to set up in the Joseph area, where Dake was born and raised.
“When (gas prices) changed, we looked at it and decided La Grande might be the better place,” Swynenberg said. “The commute from Tri-Cities is only an hour and 45 minutes, and once you’re here, there are a lot of interesting places you can go within 100 miles.”
Swynenberg said he and Dake often talk about the high fuel prices and effects they are having on people they know.
The couple believes that people who become more conservative in their spending habits will be able to continue to enjoy a camping lifestyle.
“If they change their way of living, fuel won’t have an effect,” Swynenberg said.
Jim Hollandsworth, owner of the Eagles Hot Lake RV Park near Hot Lake, said his business is doing well, though there have been some bumpy times of late.
Hollandsworth said a significant portion of his revenue comes from group bookings, including RV and motorcycle rallies, and sports teams taking part in local tournaments.
In June, an RV rally was canceled and a Little League team that had been scheduled to play in an all-star tournament decided not to come. Hollandsworth said the groups backed out because of the high price of fuel.
“The gas prices have had an effect,” he said. “To be honest, we’re ahead on dollars this year, but down on the number of vehicles. Fewer vehicles are coming, but they’re staying longer.”
He added that a good many of his customers these days are more likely to be what he calls “Northwesterners,” travelers from Oregon and nearby Washington and Idaho.
“We’re getting people who are a lot more local. We’re not seeing those from Arkansas and California and Canada as much,” he said.
Hollandsworth bought the RV park 3 1/2 years ago and added many improvements, including an indoor pavilion, new laundry units, wireless and DSL Internet connections and more. He is currently building a stage where weddings and other events can be held.
He said he has worked to rebuild the park’s reputation, and the effort has paid off in all-important repeat business.
“We’re getting a lot of returnees, and that’s helping a quite a bit,” he said.
While high gas prices present a challenge for tourist-related businesses, Hollandsworth said he is optimistic about the future.
Camping closer to home: Longtime camping enthusiasts Deva Dake and Art Swynenburg, of Kennewick, spend most of the summer at the Rendezvous Resort RV park in La Grande. They say they like the location because it is close to home, and a good jumping off spot for day trips. - Observer photos/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH
“(The fuel crunch) is going to have an effect. But people will still want to get out of the house for a weekend, even if they do make shorter trips,” he said.
The high price of fuel doesn’t appear to be keeping people from visiting Wallowa County, especially the Joseph and Wallowa Lake areas.
Debbie Barto, a co-owner of the Park at the River resort, said business has been generally brisk this summer.
“It hasn’t been too bad, not near as bad as it might have been,” she said. “We had some cancellations from people who were flying in, though not many. We’re still getting our regular customers, the ones who come every year from Alabama and Texas and Michigan.”
The resort rents motel and hotel-style rooms, cabins and RV spaces. Barto said travelers from the Pacific Northwest are showing up in increasing numbers.
“We’re getting more from Boise and the Tri-Cities, and I think people are staying longer,” she said.
The campground at Wallowa Lake State Park has been mostly full since the tourist season swung into high gear. Two weeks ago, an official there said large numbers of campers are from Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
Even though high fuel prices haven’t significantly slowed the pace of summer travel, there apparently is some fallout. People spending large amounts off money on gas seem to be cutting back elsewhere.
Restaurateur Sandy Sorrells, owner of Mamacita’s and Ten Depot Street in La Grande, said she has noticed some changes in customers’ spending habits recently.
“We haven’t seen much of a decrease in the number of customers, but they’re buying cheaper food and skipping the extras, so per capita spending is down,” she said.
Janet Dodson, executive director of Union County Tourism, said she thinks some local, tourist-dependent businesses may be struggling a bit.
“Some people I have talked to feel it’s impacting them,” Dodson said. “Sometimes it might not be obvious, but I think motels and restaurants might be feeling a pinch.”