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A PR smoke screen

Those of us in the news business learn early on to recognize spin — to know when sources want us to see things their way, despite what our eyes, ears and noses may tell us. A news release from something called the West Coast Tourism Recovery Coalition issued Thursday is a textbook example.

The coalition, representing the state tourism organizations of Washington, Oregon and California, want summer travelers to know that this season’s wildfires haven’t had any effect at all on the places they want to visit.

Really.

From the news release (emphasis mine): “While the West Coast has dealt with dozens of wildfires in primarily rural areas, the visitor experience remains largely unaffected. The perception that the majority of the region is burning has prompted visitors to cancel trips even in communities hundreds of miles from the fires.”

Well.

The fires themselves may be in “primarily rural areas” — the folks who lost homes in Redding, a city of nearly 100,000 people, might quibble with that — the smoke does not confine itself to rural areas. And nothing affects “the visitor experience” quite like hazardous air. The urban areas of Seattle, Portland, Salem, Medford and San Francisco all have experienced unhealthy air. Some of those decidedly urban areas are indeed hundreds of miles from the fires.

The release goes on to say, “Of the three states’ combined total of more than 205 million acres of land mass, less than 1 percent has been affected by fires in 2018. Across all three states, all gateway airports and roads are open. Most tourism regions and icons remain untouched.”

There’s a classic example of accurate statistics being used to obscure the truth. Less than 1 percent of the land mass? OK, but what percent of the region’s air is essentially unbreathable? Gateway airports remain open? Yes, but flights were delayed and/or canceled by smoke at Sea-Tac, Portland International and Medford. Tourism regions and icons remain untouched? Yes, the Rogue River still flows, and the Space Needle hasn’t burned down — if you can see them — but Britt and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival have had to move or cancel multiple shows.

I’m not trashing tourism. It’s a vital part of the Rogue Valley economy, not to mention all three West Coast states. But trying to pretend the fires plaguing the entire region haven’t affected “the visitor experience” is a bit much.

To be fair, the news release eventually gets around to acknowledging reality, and the state tourism agency executives pledge to give up-to-date travel tips and advisories, so “travelers are better prepared to adjust their plans,” in the words of Shiloh Burgess, co-chair of the Washington Tourism Alliance. Travel Oregon CEO Todd Davidson urges “all Americans” to support fire-affected communities by visiting “as fires subside and smoke clears away.”

By all means, everyone should come for a visit after the smoke departs. But until then, don’t expect to find outdoor activities “largely unaffected.”

That’s just blowing smoke.

Reach Editorial Page Editor Gary E. Nelson at gnelson@rosebudmedia.com.

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