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Summer tourism rebound?

Local businesses and tourism officials eye success after two pandemic-laden summers
Hikers venture into the lower Rogue River Canyon Saturday. The Rogue River National Recreation Trail, which runs 40 miles from Grave Creek to Agness, draws tourists from all over the world. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Ashley Cate, chief marketing officer, and Emily Hunter, marketing communications coordinator, work on a refresh of the Medford Chamber's Visitor and Information Center in downtown Medford Tuesday.

Tuesday marked the first day of summer, and now Rogue Valley businesses are looking to capitalize on what the season promises for tourism.

It all comes after two consecutive summers marked by a global pandemic, which saw restrictions ranging from a prohibition on outdoor concerts to sparsely attended restaurant dining rooms.

While those restrictions are in the rearview mirror, the summer of 2022 is encountering some other headwinds, including a sharp spike in gasoline prices. Experts say flight cancellations nationwide over the Juneteenth holiday might only be a precursor to what is in store on that front over the July 4 weekend.

But Eli Matthews, CEO of The Chamber of Medford and Jackson County, is optimistic about the season.

“We think it’s going to be a good summer,” Matthews said as he looked to unveil a renovated building at 101 E. Eighth St. in Medford that includes a new visitors center. “There’s been a lot of cooped-up traveler demand — a lot of people are planning trips, and they’re going to events.”

Another entity taking up the Eighth Street building is Travel Medford, a department within the Chamber. Travel Medford’s senior vice president, TJ Holmes, said the city is “poised for a successful summer” thanks to open spaces for recreation, wine, food, arts and culture.

Matthews acknowledged it may take time to “rebound” and get to “any kind of normalcy,” but the figures the Chamber gauges — such as hotel occupancy — are increasing, and that gives him optimism for summer.

“We often say, ‘Medford is a great place to stay and experience, and then, really, it is the springboard into the Rogue Valley, whether it’s winetasting or outdoor adventures,’” Matthews said. “Come stay in Medford and explore the abundance of the area.”

That abundance can be explored through companies such as Rogue Jet Boat Adventures, which operates jet boat trips in the upper Rogue River, offering glimpses of the Table Rocks, Ginger Rogers’ fishing retreat, and secluded celebrity retreats along the way.

The owners of the Central Point-based, decade-old business, Emily and Taylor Grimes, say their business actually grew 40% in the summers of 2020 and 2021 due to the fact they did not have to shut down like a lot of other places and were able to modify their boat rides to be consistent with COVID-19 regulations.

Rogue Jet Boat Adventures is looking at this summer through “really positive eyes,” even if the season got off to a slower start than normal due to the cool, wet weather, said Emily Grimes.

“Everything we have booked so far, for the summer, it’s going to be one fun ride,” Emily said. “It’s going to be a really busy summer.

“We have so many people feeling like it’s safer to come out with their families and be around other groups. All those vacations that were put off for two years, they’re making it happen.”

On land, Karolina Lavagnino, director of sales and marketing for Neuman Hotel Group, said the company increased some room rates at some of its properties, such as Ashland Springs Hotel. Yet the response from people booking has not eased.

“We were very busy in May, and we are booked solid, pretty much, in June. July, it’s looking very optimistic,” Lavagnino said.

August always is a challenge, she said, given Southern Oregon’s history of smoke and wildfires.

“As of right now, there is a slow pace when it comes to August bookings,” Lavagnino said. “Hopefully, because of the wet May and June in Southern Oregon, that we have pushed away any kind of danger of wildfires and smoke in 2022 and people will be last-minute booking and saying, ‘OK, we can definitely go and enjoy.’”

Like many airports, Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport is experiencing a pilot shortage, which is leading to flight cancellations, according to the airport’s director, Jerry Brienza.

“I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he said, noting the pilot shortage started before, but became more severe because of the pandemic.

“I don’t want to be Mr. Negative, but there’s not really an end in sight right now. Airlines are doing what they can to attract (pilots) to the industry and train them up as fast as possible while also being safe. Unfortunately, like many other businesses, the workforce just isn’t there. Where they are, I don’t know.”

The problem, however, isn’t discouraging travelers from the airport.

“Just the reverse — our summer bookings, our airlines are telling us, are up tremendously,” Brienza said. “People just want to get out.”

That’s surprising to him because airline tickets have gone up 30%, he said. Despite that, the airport reported a record-breaking number of passengers earlier this year, and the subsequent months saw figures not far behind.

“We’re seeing excellent numbers. We’re just a little concerned with the delays and cancellations,” Brienza said.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.