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Nov. 30, 2022

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Electric tourism plugs in: Green transportation part of the Northwest’s tourism pitch. But can it become a game changer?

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Taking in Portland history, and Willamette River behemoths, from a rental electric boat.
Taking in Portland history, and Willamette River behemoths, from a rental electric boat. Photo Gallery

The Willamette can be a noisy river. Particularly where it runs through downtown Portland.

Most of the time, the din of exhaust-spewing commercial and private boat engines fight for sonic primacy with the roar of vehicles crossing the river over the city’s network of bridges.

Under the cloth canopy of a 12-person Duffy Electric Boat, though, the river — even the infamously convulsed city itself—feels unexpectedly serene.

The vessel putters almost noiselessly past city landmarks — Convention Center towers, rail yard at Union Station, Waterfront Park — while its passengers share picnic food. One of their party helms the vessel, which turns lazily and cruises at a top speed of 7 mph.

Rented by The Electric Boat Company — which also operates on Lake Union in Seattle — the easy-to-operate boats are a novel way to enjoy the city.

The Electric Boat Company has been around since 2005—one day, its novelty might wear off.

If travel leaders and a handful of regional businesses have their way, in the future you won’t need gas to explore the Pacific Northwest.

Electric vehicles have become a fixture — and point of pride — across the region’s sustainable-minded tourism industry. Vehicle charging stations, carbon-offset tours and e-bike rental shops are popping up across Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

It’s all part of an emerging effort to green up the travel business.

A number of businesses catering to tourists are marketing themselves as sustainable alternatives in a global industry with a huge carbon footprint.

Headquartered in Eugene, Ore., Acrimoto rents ultra-efficient, small electric vehicles in five states in support of its mission “to catalyze the shift to a sustainable transportation system.”

Tourism’s climate cost

Tourism and outdoor recreation together contribute tens of billions of dollars to economies in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, according to the states’ tourism offices. In the Columbia River Gorge and Mt. Hood region alone, visitors spent about $423 million in 2021, according to Travel Oregon.

But travel comes with another price tag — greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to the climate crisis.

The global tourism industry accounted for about 8% of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions before the pandemic, according to a study published in scientific journal Nature Climate Change.

Visitors traveling to and from the United States are responsible for the most carbon emissions of any country, the study said.

Portions of the tourism industry recognize this reality.

Earlier this year, the Oregon Coast Visitors Association declared a climate emergency and pledged to rapidly slash emissions.

There’s evidence that tourists who witness obvious and symbolic effects of climate change, such as a disappearing glacier, may adopt more climate-conscious lifestyles.

People can be more open-minded when they travel, says Jeff Allen, executive director of Forth, a Portland-based nonprofit advocating for electric transit.

“When you’re on vacation, people tend to be open to trying new things, and different things,” says Allen. “It’s actually a great opportunity to expose them to some of this technology.”

Electric Byways

Launched in 2015 by Travel Oregon and the Oregon Department of Transportation, the state’s Electric Byways program established six tourism-optimized routes that feature charging stations every 25-50 miles. The idea: businesses with a charging station will attract more tourists.

Travel Oregon calls it “one of the largest and most robust networks of Electric Vehicle Fast Charging stations in the U.S. It allows electric vehicle users to explore the state carbon free.”

The six routes — Oregon Coast, North Oregon Coast, Mount Hood and Columbia River Gorge, Southern Oregon Arts & Bounty, Willamette Valley Bounty, Covered Bridges — connect environmentally friendly businesses, such as hotels, restaurants, spas and wineries.

Before the pandemic limited travel, Forth partnered with the Electric Byways program in an initiative that offered up to $5,000 in rebates for tourism-related businesses that installed an electric vehicle charging station.

Seven businesses took advantage of the rebates, including wineries, hotels and the Old Parkdale Inn, a bed and breakfast in the Hood River Valley community of Parkdale.

Allen believes electric vehicle chargers will become ubiquitous.

By the next decade, hotels that don’t offer EV charging options “are going to be like hotels that don’t offer ice buckets,” he says.

Although Travel Oregon doesn’t know exactly how many visitors have used the byways, it says anecdotal and other evidence suggests the program is gaining in popularity.

“We know that electric vehicles are growing in popularity. Nationwide, sales nearly doubled from 308,000 to 608,000,” a Travel Oregon spokesperson told Columbia Insight via email. “In Oregon, 15,307 EVs were newly registered, an increase of 109% over 2020 and just recently Oregon met its 2020 target for electric vehicles goal of 50,000 electric vehicles registered and operating in the state. Many domestic and international travelers are seeking more green travel patterns.”

Electric pedicabs

Matthew Barmann owns and operates Hood River Pedicab, an electric bike and car taxi service based in Hood River, Ore.

Barmann’s business is built around clean energy.

For four years, he’s loaded visitors into his pedicab for tours of local art, vistas and trails.

He also uses a Tesla to ferry drivers further afield for about $1 per minute. He estimates his fuel and maintenance costs are about one-fifth the cost of a typical gas-powered taxi or ride-share vehicle.

“From a business standpoint, it does make sense to run electric,” he says.

Barmann markets himself as a clean energy alternative to gas-powered forms of transportation—and encourages clients to use public transit when possible instead of hiring him.

He points travelers bound to or from Portland to the Columbia Gorge Express, a bus connecting the Gorge with a public transit hub near Portland International Airport.

His taxi service is one of several non-gas transportation options for Hood River visitors. Forth partnered with government and nonprofits last year to establish an electric car-sharing program. Visitors and locals can rent one of five Nissan Leafs from several locations around town.

Charlie Crocker owns Sol Rides in Hood River, which rents out pedal-assisted electric bikes.

He says e-bikes have become a more popular since he began renting them in 2017. Tourists can rent a bike with Sol and book a guided tour to a local winery, orchards and trails.

“E-bikes are a way to slow it all down and be one with the area,” says Crocker.

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