After Salem’s local economy was hit hard by the pandemic and wildfires, the city’s tourism bureau now says the number of people stopping by their visitor center also point to more people traveling to the Salem area this year.

Spectators line the banks to watch the 1.2-mile swimming stage of Ironman 70.3 in Salem on July 25, 2021. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Salem last year had just 18 conventions and sports bookings total on the calendar. In the first three months of this fiscal year, which runs July 2021 to June, the city’s tourism bureau already had 13 on the books.

If it’s any sign of a trend, end-of-year figures would more than double last year’s total, said Angie Onyewuchi, Travel Salem’s president and chief executive officer.

Salem’s tourism industry was hit hard by the pandemic, with travel to the area in 2020 bringing in half as much revenue for the local economy as it did the year prior. Now, it looks to be bouncing back, though Onyewuchi said a return to pre-pandemic levels depends on whether corporate travel becomes as common as it was previously.

She said she believes Salem will reach that point by next year.

The growing event bookings come as Travel Salem plans to open a new downtown location for its visitor center, which she said is “a key component of what we do to drive economic impact.” 

Meanwhile, Salem residents and event organizers are booking reservations at city parks at the highest rates since the pandemic began, including both commercial events and smaller gatherings. 

The scheduled event expected to bring in the most revenue for Salem’s economy is the sold-out Ironman 70.3 slated for July 10. There will be around 3,400 participants, over 1,000 more than last year’s Ironman.

“That’s the biggest one we have at the moment, but we’ve got other pieces of business that we’re working on that have the potential to be quite a bit larger than that,” Onyewuchi said.

Last year’s Ironman generated over $10 million for the local economy, according to the first quarter report.

Travel across Marion and Polk counties generated $315 million last year, compared to $638 million in 2019. 

Travel Salem’s first quarter report 2021-22, which covers July through September, listed its year-end target for economic impact from travel as growing 2% from the prior year, to $321.3 million. The fiscal year covers July to June.

Onyewuchi said that forecast was done over a year ago and was “very conservative” due to the unpredictability of Covid. 

Given Travel Salem’s success with its visitor center and booking conventions and sporting events, she said, “we’re going to blow that $321 million target out of the water.”

She said more than 73,000 people in the first three months of the year have stopped by Travel Salem’s visitor center at 201 Liberty St S.E. or their various locations throughout the region. That’s 93% of their quarterly report’s estimate for the full year.

“Those are really good indicators that things are starting to turn around,” she said. “Omicron didn’t have the same devastating impact as Delta did, and you can see that in these numbers here.”

The visitor center temporarily moved last month to the lobby of The Grand Hotel as they move into a new location in downtown Salem.

Travel Salem bought the former Chase Bank building at 630 Center St. N.E. and hopes to move into it in June or July after construction is completed.  

“After Covid, folks really want that one on one assistance to experience the destination. They want to know the different ways to experience a destination where they can do social distancing, or get more out into the wide open spaces, and so they’re really asking those questions and wanting help planning their trips,” she said.

The new, “spacious” location will include a visitor center and space for exhibits, the old bank teller window used for drive-thru visitor assistance and video of the region shown in the theater area, according to a news release.

Travel Salem plans to rent out a portion of the 19,000-square-foot building as office space for businesses and organizations, and nonprofits will be able to reserve meeting rooms.

Once the mortgage is paid off, the nonprofit will invest the money into programs that drive tourism, Onyewuchi said in a prepared statement about the move.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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