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Oregon eclipse tourism data shows something went wrong

Last summer in Oregon was a season of wonder, disaster, and a little bit of an employment mystery.

The August eclipse was predicted to bring one million visitors to the state. Hotels were full. Restaurants stocked up on food and told customers to pay in cash to avoid long lines. With the big boom in business, you’d expect to see a bump—maybe even a big bump—in restaurant and lodging employment.

But, something happened.

Restaurant and lodging employment in Oregon dropped by almost two percent from July to August. Portland, Bend, and Eugene were all within a 30 minute drive of the path of totality, yet each of those cities saw their hospitality employment decline in August.

What happened?

The simple answer is that the one million people never arrived. Sure, folks flooded the state, just not in the numbers that were predicted. But that doesn’t explain the employment numbers. If businesses were planning on an influx of tourists, they would have hired them before finding out the tourists weren’t showing up.

Wildfires can get some of the blame. The fires may have turned away some potential last-minute tourists and may have caused some cancellations. But, even areas unaffected by the wildfires reported fewer-than-expected tourists. Portland area restaurant and lodging employment dropped by 1.4 percent in August—the month before the Eagle Creek fire was sparked.

Against this backdrop of disappointing tourism and unexpected wildfires, Oregon raised its minimum wage in July. Under the state’s unique minimum wage law, the Portland area wage was increased to $11.25 an hour, a 15 percent increase. Other parts of the state saw a 5 percent increase.

Across the U.S., restaurant and lodging employment was flat between July and August. Yet, Oregon saw a decline in a year that was expected to see jump in hospitality employment.

Of course, it’s too early to draw any firm conclusions, but it looks like Oregon faced a perfect storm of inflated expectations, bad luck, and misguided wage laws to turn what would have been a block buster employment summer into a bust.