The tourism industry is growing steadily every year, including in Union County. In 2017, the county saw an increase of 5.6 percent in money tourists spent.

“We’re right in there,” said Union County Chamber of Commerce Director Bob Kavanaugh, whose organization is responsible for tourism promotion in the county. “The thing we have to understand is Union County is the hub of Northeast Oregon.”

He said the county is the gateway, but not necessarily the destination for tourists.

“They’re coming here for a myriad of reasons. We asked the hotel and motel industry owners what is bringing people to Union County or La Grande. The most common threads were Mt. Emily Recreation Area, the (Eagle Cap) Excursion Train, golfing, the Elgin Opera House and the Eastern Oregon Film Festival.”

Kavanaugh also listed La Grande’s Eastern Oregon Beer Festival and the Ladd Marsh area as other tourist destinations.

City Manager Robert Strope added Crazy Days and its car show, Morgan Lake and the other city parks as reasons people come to La Grande.

“We’re the jumping-off point,” Strope said. “When the economy gets better, people are traveling more.”

However, people traveling to big tourist draws like Wallowa Lake, the City of Joseph and the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City don’t necessarily stop on their way through Union County.

According to a recent Oregon Travel Impacts report by Dean Runyan Associates for the Oregon Tourism Commission, the five counties that received the most tourism visits in 2017 were Umatilla with 13 percent, Hood River with 10.6 percent, Washington with 10.3 percent, Klamath with 9 percent and Malheur with 8.2 percent.

The solar eclipse, which was in August 2017, likely impacted these tourism numbers.

“Eastern Oregon was one of the best places to view the total solar eclipse,” said Linea Gagliano, global communicators director for Travel Oregon. “(The region) saw the largest increase in visitor spending of all the seven regions, coming in 8.9 percent higher than the previous year. This outperformed the state numbers, which saw a 4.7 percent increase in revenue in 2017.”

In Union County, tourism spending reached $35.2 million in 2017, according to the report, which was a nearly $2 million increase from the year before.

To compare, Malheur County saw a total of $45.6 million destination spending in 2017, which was an increase of more than $3.5 million; Wallowa County reported a total of $30.9 million being spent in 2017, a $1.6 million increase from the previous year; Baker County reported $47.2 million in 2017, a $2.2 million difference from the year before.

Umatilla County reported the highest amount of all: $165.5 million with a nearly $19 million difference from the year before.

Kavanaugh said if the surrounding counties do well, then Union County sees some of that too.

“We’re not just focusing on what happens here, but throughout the region,” Kavanaugh said. “They come here and want to go downtown and go to dinner. The more effective we get in marketing the region, the better we are.”

The draw for Umatilla County is their vibrant economy, he said.

“Umatilla County has some cool things going on,” Kavanaugh said. “The economy is healthy. That is helping drawing the tourism

Umatilla County has some strong events — such as the Pendleton Whisky Fest and the Pendleton Round-Up, both of which draw huge crowds.

Union County’s events bring in people, but not as significantly.

Kavanaugh aims to change that. He said he’s putting together a menu of sorts to promote Union County’s summer offerings that he plans to market to nearby metropolitan areas such as the Tri-Cities, Walla Walla and Boise.

“People will come if they see we have quality assets,” he said.

Gagliano said people are traveling to the state for outdoor activities. She said the results of the recent Oregon Travel Impacts report were not a surprise, explaining that Oregon is outpacing the U.S. in visitor spending.

“The U.S. saw an increase of 3 percent in 2017 over 2016, while Oregonians enjoyed a 4.7 percent increase, which led to 2,700 more jobs in 2017,” she said.

Editor’s note: Observer Publisher Karrine Brogoitti is president of the Union County Chamber of Commerce.