WALLOWA COUNTY — As the tourism season begins with Memorial Day weekend, Wallowa County is all set to rebound from the hindrances of the COVID-19 pandemic that put a dent in it over the past couple of years.
Representatives of business organizations in the county expressed optimism that the coming season will be profitable and active.
“It’s looking to be a very busy tourist season,” said Jennifer Piper, executive director of the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce. “This area continues to be a popular destination for people to get away.”
Jude Graham, interim president of the Joseph Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
“All the signs are we’re going to have a great summer,” she said.
Mike Lockhart, president of the Wallowa Lake Tourism Association, also was onboard.
“It’s looking very good,” he said.
While some events were canceled because of the pandemic, the tourism industry managed to survive and even thrive.
Piper said during both pandemic years, which also were plagued by the fire seasons that coincided, lodging data showed the volume was considerable.
“They were two of the strongest tourist seasons Wallowa County has ever had,” she said. “They were two of the strongest years for demand we’ve ever seen in Wallowa County.”
One of the signs the season will be strong is that reservations for rooms are filling up.
“From my conversations with the accommodation people, they’re getting good bookings and filling up pretty well,” Lockhart said.
“I think we’re going to get back to our normal tourist season,” Graham said. “The motels say they’re booking up for the car shows and Chief Joseph Days weekends.”
She was referring to Main Street Show & Shine in Enterprise set for Aug. 19-20 and the Joseph-based Wallowa Mountain Cruise scheduled for Aug. 26-27. Chief Joseph Days is always the last full weekend in July.
Graham said she’s hoping to see a bigger turnout for Chief Joseph Days. The rodeo runs from July 26-30, but there are added events such as the parade July 30 and the cowboy church and breakfast at the Harley Tucker Arena the day after the rodeo ends.
She said the chamber has been attracting vendors from out of the area, but she hopes to see more locals there.
“We’d love to have some more local vendors sign up,” she said. “It would be nice to get some local people signed up for that.”
But those are just a few of the major events of the summer — others also are planned.
Graham mentioned a bike rally planned for June in Joseph. Put on by a private group, she said, it also is expected to draw tourists.
“They’ll be roaming around town for a couple of days,” she said.
One event hit particularly hard by the pandemic was Hells Canyon Mule Days. For the most part, it was canceled the past two years, but it’s back on this year, Sept. 9-11, at the Wallowa County Fairgrounds in Enterprise.
Of course, one variable that could either throw a wrench into the works or be a strong benefit is the weather. Two years ago, the county was plagued with smoke from fires across the state. Last year was hot, with a major fire in the northern end of the county.
Graham was all about good weather in her prognostication.
“It’s going to be wonderful and there’ll be sunshine and blue skies soon,” she said. “It’ll be a great summer.”
Piper, too, was positive in her outlook.
“My take, my perspective is very positive,” she said. “I’m hopeful for good weather conditions, as well.”
Meeting the demand
Businesses always have to step up to meet the demand of the thousands of visitors who swarm the county during tourist season.
“There’s a greater demand in the tourism market,” Piper said. “Meeting that demand, there definitely are some challenges in the hospitality workforce.”
She said filling jobs is hardly unique to Wallowa County.
“Some of the repercussions we’re seeing from COVID are in the workforce sector with seasonal positions,” she said.
Still, everyone was generally positive in their outlook.
“The lake is very much in demand and they’re filling up pretty well,” Lockhart said, adding that both chambers have done a strong job marketing the county. “I’m pretty positive about the way things are going.”