The Visitors

A photo essay | photos by Wesley Lapointe

You’re not wrong: The lines for hazelnut ice cream really are getting longer each year.

Portland is attracting tourists in record numbers. In 2018, visitor spending in the Portland metro area hit an all-time high: $5.3 billion, a 47 percent increase from 2010. That’s a significant boon to the local economy. Travel Portland estimates the hospitality industry employs 36,360 workers, and as WW reported last year, the city is in the midst of a hotel construction spree (“Local’s Guide to Luxury Hotels,” Aug. 29, 2018).

But popularity can be overwhelming. In record numbers, visitors are coming to Portland to hog our trails, smoke our weed and drink our beer.

We joined them.

This week—with the Rose Festival jamming the waterfront with celebrants—WW sent a photographer and several reporters to spend a week among the tourists. So we rode in a helicopter and boarded two weed buses and braved Multnomah Falls on a Saturday. We even hopped on the BrewCycle. Along the way, we examined the scofflaw companies taking advantage of the demand while evading city regulators and asked hotel concierge desks what tourists really want.

We wanted to see this city from the perspective of people who view it as a vacation destination. Turns out, it’s a nice place to visit.

Where Young People Go to Vacation

This is one of the most crowded weeks in downtown Portland, thanks to the throngs of tourists jamming the waterfront and Old Town during the Rose Festival. Most of them are your fellow Oregonians. Data compiled by the travel market research firm Longwoods International gives a snapshot of who visits Portland. However much national attention Portlandia has brought, the vast majority of visitors hail from Oregon and Washington. And this is no Branson, Mo.—most of the tourists are under the age of 44. Perhaps the most striking finding: Tourists visiting Portland are even more likely to be white than the locals. (Portland is 70 percent white; visitors are 83 percent white.)

State of Origin

Oregon: 28%

Washington: 26%

California: 20%

Florida: 3%

Idaho: 2%

Arizona: 2%

New York: 2%

Texas: 2%


18-24 years: 13%

25-34 years: 23%

35-44 years: 20%

45-54 years: 17%

55-64 years: 13%

65 years and up: 14%


White: 83%

Black: 3%

Other: 14%

The Party Never Ends

Every day, Portland’s growing fleet of tour buses flouts safety rules.

When visitors climb aboard Portland tourist vehicles, there’s a pretty good chance nobody’s watching, despite Angie Hernandez’s death.

Hernandez was 11 years old on Sept. 29, 2012, when she boarded a party bus chartered to take her to a quinceañera. As the bus turned a corner in downtown Portland, Hernandez fell out of a window and suffered a fatal injury.

Her death drew scrutiny of the company operating the party bus without the required city permit. Portland Bureau of Transportation officials said the company, Five Star Limousines, was part of a larger danger: unsanctioned nightclubs on wheels.

“They really look very much like a dance floor in Las Vegas,” John Case, a member of the city review committee for private for-hire transportation companies, told The Oregonian at the time. “Everybody is absolutely outraged.”

Nearly seven years later, little has changed—except a lot more vehicles now ferry tourists around the city. Party buses have been joined by weed vans, wine shuttles and even helicopters.

Many of these companies flout city rules. WW counted at least 25 companies currently advertising tour pickups in Portland that do not have the required permits. That’s far more than the 16 tour companies listed as permitted by the city’s private for-hire transportation program. The compliance rate appears similarly modest for party buses and limousines.

City regulators say that’s despite an aggressive effort to police scofflaws. “People don’t often notify regulators or enforcement staff to say they are going to break the law,” says PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera, “which is why we take a proactive approach, in addition to responding to complaints.”

Licensed tour bus operators want more policing of the bad actors.

“When I pull up at the Nines [hotel],” says Jeff Davies, owner of Portland’s Ecotours of Oregon, “I’d like a PBOT person every once in a while to say, ‘Would you mind showing us your permit?’”

Rivera says PBOT has done plenty: issuing 31 fines, suspending two permits and sending two cease-and-desist letters since 2016. He says the bureau currently has 27 open investigations on tour bus companies.

“Outside of Portland, permits are not required, so many companies are just not aware that they need a permit to pick up passengers inside city limits,” he says. “Most tour companies conduct tours outside of the city, and the actual vehicle is in the city for a very short period.”

Party buses and tour vans are classified differently by PBOT, but they face a similar permitting process. If a vehicle carries more than 14 passengers or weighs more than 2,600 pounds, it needs a state permit, as well as city licenses. Companies with smaller vehicles need a $500 city permit and a $250 permit for each vehicle. The vehicles can’t be more than 10 years old, and they must be inspected by a certified mechanic. The company has to carry $1 million of liability insurance.

These rules apply to any company that picks up passengers in Portland. But they don’t apply to companies that only drop people off in Portland—a party bus could legally pick up customers, take them to Portland strip clubs for a bachelor party, then drop them back off in the ’burbs—and surrounding cities don’t have any rules to break.

In 2012, the year Hernandez died, the Portland City Council toughened the rules requiring party buses to get city permits, so that repeat offenders would face criminal charges. Rivera says PBOT hasn’t yet taken that step.

“We have not prosecuted,” he says. “Violators typically halt operations after we have warned and fined them.”

It’s unclear what effect greater scrutiny by PBOT of tour providers would have.

Five Star Limousines, the company operating the bus that ran over Angie Hernandez, went quiet shortly after her death. In 2014, the Portland Tribune reported its fleet had been sold to another company—which was then targeted by PBOT for breaking city rules.

Bizarrely, a company using the same name—Five Star Limousines—now advertises party buses for rent in Portland. (Public records suggest it has different owners.) The company has no city permit. A man reached at the company’s phone number declined to discuss city permits. “It’s really nobody’s concern, without a formal letter,” he said, and wouldn’t give his full name.

“When we say ‘party bus’ we really emphasize party,” Five Stars’ website says. “All of the chauffeurs are licensed and knowledgeable of the area so that your only worry is to have a good time.”

Weed Bus

Lou takes a deep drag from his spliff before passing it to his girlfriend, Chinelle, seated next to him on the Potlandia tour bus. Dr. Dre and Eminem’s “Forgot About Dre” play over the speakers. Neon lights reflect off cannabis-themed wallpaper through a veil of smoke. “It was both our birthdays yesterday and we just wanted to celebrate,” Lou explains. Cannabis tourism is an increasingly large portion of Portland’s hospitality industry: 11 percent of visitors said in 2017 it was a reason they came to this city, just two years after the category didn’t exist on official surveys. Two competing tour companies, High 5 and Potlandia, now provide three-hour tours of several dispensaries, with the buses themselves serving as mobile smoking lounges. (The High 5 bus is a former airport shuttle and has obtained the required city permits.) On both tours, the last stop is a food cart pod. As the Potlandia bus pulls out of Burnside Skatepark, Marcus of Walla Walla, Wash., takes a few tokes before parting ways. “It was a long drive down here,” he says, “but this stuff helps.”

Brew Barge

Lindsay Mcauley shouted the lyrics to Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” with a beer in hand as the 14-member BrewBarge crew hit the open waters of the Willamette River. “I’m just going to keep pedaling and burn off all the beer,” joked her husband, Nick Mcauley, a mountainous rugby player from Calgary. Captain Steve, a skipper with flowing hair and a bountiful beard, positioned himself at the helm of the ship as deckhand JP cranked up the sound system. The party boatgoers pedaled in besotted unison as the 30-foot vessel pushed through the waves, much like the more famous BrewCycle charges up and down the streets of Portland (the two are operated by the same company). A family visiting from India took over the tunes as sudsy passengers waved to a passing Coast Guard boat. The 90-minute voyage made laps between the Hawthorne and Morrison bridges as each passenger consumed all the beer they could bring on board. Enthusiastic participants took turns at the wheel while under supervision by the captain. When the ship reached the pier once again after 90 minutes, everyone exited in satisfaction. “We just came to check out the city,” said Mcauley’s friend Tom Laidlaw. “It’s been a blast.”

BrewCycle: If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Join ’Em

You’ve almost certainly seen the BrewCycle and, if you haven’t, you’ve heard it.

The 1-ton, 15-seat wooden bikes are a staple of the Pearl District. They’re a slow-moving roadblock typically filled with loud, increasingly drunk tourists singing along to a speaker-blasted soundtrack.

On a warm, late May afternoon, I decided to join them.

Actually, I’ve taken this ride twice before, once with a grad-school cohort during spring break, another with a bachelorette party that sipped beer from penis-shaped straws. Any experience with BrewGroup—the company that started with a single bike in 2011 and has now grown into a fleet operating on both sides of the river, along with a BYOB party boat called BrewBarge—largely depends on who your fellow riders are.

Today, nine of the 15 seats are occupied by the sales team from Harbor Wholesale Foods, a Lacey, Wash., grocery supplier. They’ve come to Portland for some team-building before the next day’s quarterly meeting.

They are joined by a Minnesota couple and a guy from Queens who’s sightseeing while his wife is attending a conference. “I’m Dan,” the driver announces, “but you can call me Captain Dan or Dan the Man.”

“What about Big D?” the New Yorker asks.

Dan, his mane of wavy hair just long and tapered enough to qualify as a mullet, warns everyone that it’s up to our legs to keep this rig moving—there is no hidden engine to give passengers a breather. He then ticks off the guidelines: Don’t jump off the bike. Don’t rock the bike. And don’t heckle pedestrians.

“This bike is walking speed,” he says, “so if you piss someone off, they could catch up to you.”

Our legs begin pumping in time to Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades.” Big D assures us we “are killing it” as we cruise into a parking space across the street from our first stop, Lucky Lab on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. Inside, the group marvels at the hefty 9 percent ABV Super Duper Dog on the menu.

Rather than compare tasting notes, we take our pints outside and play cornhole next to a picnic table of glum, chain-smoking locals bundled in black sweatshirts and beanies on an 80-degree day. They look relieved when Dan reappears to usher us back to our steed.

Chris, the wholsesaler’s territory manager who lives in Corbett, forms an imaginary band with Dan the Man as we trundle toward Schilling Cider House—she passionately mouths the lyrics to Rush songs while he does double duty as air guitarist and drummer. One ambitious drinker reminds himself aloud to chug faster.

“I’ve gotta remember to really start drinking,” he says. “I didn’t finish mine at the last place!”

The signs of a good buzz begin to show back on the bike. Phones come out for selfies—there’s more than one tongue sticking out and plenty of “rock on” hand gestures. Pushing onward to the last stop, Loyal Legion, a mail carrier pauses to let us cross the intersection. Her facial expression indicates she’s yielded to this ridiculous buggy of drunks before. Too bad. Anybody not on the BrewCyle is missing out on one helluva party.

Happier Trails

It used to be that if you wanted to escape the anxiety of life in Portland, all you had to do was drive an hour or two outside the city and hit the trail.

But in the past few years, Oregon’s hiking destinations have devolved into chaos.

Once-undisturbed paths in the Columbia River Gorge are now mobbed by tourists wielding selfie sticks, screaming babies and unleashed chihuahuas. Cramped trailhead parking lots have constricted the flow of traffic to some of the state’s most treasured landscapes.

In all that disorder, Arlo Leach saw an opportunity.

A Portland web developer and avid hiker, Leach first noticed the overcrowded trails when the U.S. Forest Service began requiring permits to climb Dog Mountain in 2018 due to congestion and accidents near the trailhead.

“I spent a lot of time being anxious about if I have a plan for where I want to go,” Leach says, “and wanting to know if it’s going to be crowded before I get there.”

So he did what most engineers do when presented with a problem: He built a machine to fix it.

In January, Leach launched TrailCheck, an app allowing users to crowdsource the information that matters to hikers most, from parking lot capacity to trail conditions.

The app has an unfussy design and is exceedingly easy to navigate. Once signed in, users can choose to contribute to the TrailCheck database with trail information of their own, or search the growing trail index to find the data they need before setting out for a hike. Users can add trails to the database as well.

To test the app, we spent one hot Saturday morning traveling to some of the most popular trails surrounding Portland—Multnomah Falls and Latourell Falls in the Gorge, and Lower Macleay Trail into Forest Park.

The parking lot at Multnomah Falls was a nightmare of muscle cars and SUVs. In response, I opened the TrailCheck app, located the Multnomah Falls Freeway Lot, and simply logged what I saw, rating the lot usage as “High.”

Latourell Falls and Lower Macleay Trail were equally congested—on our visit to the Latourell Falls trailhead, a disgruntled Portland park ranger was recording cars without disabled permits parked in disabled spots. Again, I opened the app on my phone and submitted information, this time reporting back with parking lot conditions as well as information on the weather and trail conditions.

What I didn’t get was much help. In all three cases, I was the only user who had recorded information that day, even though it was a Saturday at three of the busiest hiking trails in the state.

Leach hopes that will change as the user base grows. To increase awareness, Leach hopes to partner with local organizations, including Trailkeepers of Oregon and Friends of the Columbia Gorge. The more exposure the app receives, the greater chance it has to benefit the community.

“I would love for this to be used by land management organizations that do trail maintenance,” he says. He also envisions running statistics on the app as well, such as providing temperature changes from a mountain’s base to its summit.

For now, TrailCheck is up and running for summer hiking season and, even in its early state, could help relieve some of the headaches and anxiety associated with hitting the trail. But it’ll take a committed audience to ensure its success.

“I’d love to see it used,” Leach says, “if only because I want to use it myself.”

GET IT: TrailCheck is available for download from the Apple App and Google Play stores. For more information, see

Ask a Concierge

What brings people to Portland? Scholarship on that question is a little vague. The most recent survey by a tourism market research organization showed the largest single draw to Portland for visitors was the shopping. (Forty percent of visitors wanted to shop; another 22 percent wanted to hit up a brewery.) For more detail, we turned to the experts: hotel concierges. We asked them where their guests most frequently sought directions. Five of the front desks spilled—and offered an explanation for all that shopping. “People come to Portland because it’s still got that funky street town vibe,” said the desk clerk at the Nines, a luxury hotel on Southwest Morrison Street. “Vancouver and Seattle are growing with large buildings and urban development. Portland is just eclectic. There’s no sales tax, and goods are cheaper.” Here’s what else they said people want.

What do guests most often ask about?

Most want to stick to the downtown area.

› Tom McCall Waterfront Park

› The Pearl district

› Washington Park

› Japanese Garden

› Pittock Mansion

› High-end restaurants and bars

What do concierges advise guests do if they want to be like the locals?

› The answer was almost always “head over to the EastSide.”

› Visit Hawthorne, Alberta, Mississippi, and Division.

› Mount Tabor, Peninsula Park, Laurelhurst.

› Avoid Voodoo Doughnut; visit dispensaries and local breweries.

What do people ask about if they want to explore outside Portland?

› Visit the Gorge; Multnomah Falls specifically.

› Cannon Beach, Seaside and especially Astoria.

› Most hotels suggested winery tours in the area.

› Mount Hood in winter.

Where does everyone seem to be coming from?

› Foreign visitors most commonly hailed from Vancouver, B.C., Germany, New Zealand, and Australia. (Australia was mentioned at nearly every hotel. When asked why, some suggested it may be because Australians get one month of paid time off and make the West Coast into a road trip.)

› Most tourists seem to travel down from Seattle and make their way south along the west coast.

› Californians mainly come up from the Bay Area, fewer from SoCal.

Go By Whirlybird

The newest entrant to the industry of ferrying tourists about Portland is Oregon Helicopters, which pilots 10-to-30-minute chopper tours above the city—from a city-owned Old Town helipad.

Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesman Dylan Rivera says the city doesn’t regulate helicopter rides and doesn’t charge Oregon Helicopters anything for using the landing pad—meaning that motorists who park for an hour ($1.80) in the city-owned SmartPark garage beneath the heliport are contributing more to city coffers than Oregon Helicopters is.

“PBOT has no contracts with any helicopter companies,” says Rivera. “The Portland Downtown Heliport is a public heliport. Therefore, any appropriately licensed pilot is allowed to utilize the heliport.”

Oregon Helicopters also benefits from what amounts to a loophole in Federal Aviation Administration regulations: Because Oregon Helicopters’ tours depart from and arrive at the same spot, the flights, in regulatory terms, don’t actually go anywhere. That means the company does not need to obtain commercial air carrier certification.

Joe Mullihan, a spokesman for the FAA, says that’s standard for sightseeing helicopters, which aren’t allowed to travel more than 25 miles per flight. “They take off from the spot,” he says, “they give them a quick tour, then back to the same spot they took off from.”

So what’s it like? We bought one of the shorter trips: the 10-minute, $75 “City Parks Helicopter Tour.”

An elevator carries Oregon Helicopters’ passengers to the roof of the garage at Northwest Naito Parkway and Davis Street. The aircraft looks small against the sweeping backdrop of the Steel Bridge and Convention Center spires rising in the distance. We’ll be navigating that expanse and more in something about the size of a compact car.

Before boarding, our pilot demonstrates how to open the helicopter’s door in case of an emergency; even if you mimic his movements, an anxious flier could be forgiven for forgetting everything he says a few minutes later. What does stick in the brain, however, are his instructions about which direction to head if things go wrong: Walk to the front of the chopper, never the back, which is where the tail’s rotor is spinning, effectively acting as a human-sized food processor if you don’t pay attention.

Once we’re buckled into our seats and have headsets on, the giant blades above our heads begin spinning, slowly, then pick up speed, and the fuselage starts to rattle. It’s jarring. But as we begin to lift off the patch of concrete, everything smoothes out. A burst of adrenaline kicks in as we buzz over bridge after bridge. The pilot prepares us for our first sharp turn, and when we take that deep dip to the left it feels like riding a roller coaster. The route then veers above the rolling acres of Forest Park, a seemingly endless shag rug of evergreens from this vantage point. Pittock Mansion might as well be a doll’s house about to be swallowed by the wilderness.

Soon, we’re laughing at traffic on Highway 26, because all of our lanes are wide open, while down below us is a ribbon of red brake lights. Ten minutes in a chopper feels more like two.