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The Big Money—and Big Trouble—in the Eclipse Economy

For some small American cities, there are financial opportunities and major pitfalls in the coming solar eclipse. Can tech companies monetize this massive natural occurrence?

Xenia Latii

Thanks to two measly minutes on August 21, the Salem-Keizer area of Oregon is about to become a tourist trap for the first time. Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of people are about to rush an otherwise ordinary destination. Salem-Keizer is full of churches, fast food chains, and two terrible shopping malls. It’s easy to overlook. But I know its real value: It’s a mere hour from Portland and the coast, and just another 20 minutes to the mountains. There are lush parks lining the Willamette River. And abandoning I-5 for the backroads around the area takes visitors through loping, hop-filled valleys. The streets of downtown Salem are wide, a geographic marker of Mormon towns that make for easy parking.

While Portland is very much in vogue, my hometown of Keizer, some 48 miles south, is not. But I am what you might call a “hometown girl,” and I spiral into ravings about my place of birth when asked about anything loosely related. (Also: No. Sales. Tax.)

I’d love to tell you about the secret underground tunnels of the Capitol building as well as how the first two burned down. You can walk all the way up to “The Gold Man” if you want. Salem is home to a surprisingly energetic three-on-three basketball tournament. Did you know that Oregon’s birthday is Valentine’s Day? Did you know that Salem was nearly called Valleyopolis? Did you know that Keizer has been a city since only 1984? Not to out-Oregon myself, but one of the best days of my childhood was chasing down Arvydas Sabonis at a Benihana and then, hours later, doing the same to Tonya Harding at the Lloyd Center Mall in Portland.

Strangers don’t always share my enthusiasm for the Salem-Keizer area. Or at least they didn’t until this summer. But that’s changing, and for one reason: Salem and Keizer are both in the path of totality, the northwest-to-southeast band across the continental United States where the August 21 solar eclipse will be completely visible. My hometown has become a popular destination, and the evidence of this is all over the internet, which has also acted as a conduit for this sudden craze. It’s going to be complete chaos. I’m going to hate it. I can’t wait.

The last total solar eclipse visible from the continental United States appeared in 1979, and it was awe-inspiring then, too—but it didn’t span from coast to coast. It didn’t have the internet touting it back then, either.

“One major thing that singles this one out is that the path of totality spans the continental U.S. and no other nation or land mass,” astrophysicist Rick Boozer says via email. Boozer blogs about astronomy, and he says the traffic on his posts about the eclipse have been growing every day. (I found him after a handful of friends shared this post on Facebook.) “The last solar eclipse with these characteristics was June 8, 1918! More Americans will witness totality than ever, because the population is so much greater than it was in 1918 and there is great awareness due to the media.”

Boozer says that the last “true solar eclipse where actual totality was visible” from the United States was in 1991, but it was only from Hawaii. “The one this year is the only one I can remember where the view of totality spans the length of the U.S. from Pacific to Atlantic, so it is truly an historic event.”

While nothing about the nature of a total eclipse has changed, the marketing of the wilderness and everything above and beyond it has evolved light-years. Now, there are hundreds of thousands of tutorials on how to use your smartphone to capture the eclipse, and various internet-enabled accommodation tools. There is Facebook Events, which has been used to schedule innumerable eclipse-watching parties. (I was invited to one by a friend who lives in Salem more than a year ago.) Facebook advertising has also been eclipsed-out: For the past month, my feed has been an eclipse event-and-apparel advertising vehicle.

The excitement is palpable, and ever present: Local stores are heavily promoting eclipse glasses, and online shops peddling paraphernalia are filling up cookie-based ad spaces. Last year, I wrote about what happens when the internet takes a relatively undiscovered place and turns it into a viral sensation. There is an obvious benefit: More people find the place, experience the place, (hopefully) cherish the place. But when the floodgates open and the collective SEO power of social media is directed at a single target, the single target could very well buckle under the pressure. Now, couple that with a natural phenomenon the likes of which we’ve never seen, will last for only a few minutes, and is clearest in a handful of tiny towns. You can understand the trepidation of these cities and their residents.

Via Molly McHugh

When I talked to Zach Urness, a reporter at Salem’s Statesman Journal who’s been covering the upcoming eclipse weekend, I compared what’s happening to when a Super Bowl lands in your city. I lived in Oakland during the 2016 Super Bowl in Santa Clara and remember the skyrocketing Airbnb prices, the ludicrous traffic. This doesn’t even compare with that, Urness says—and that was in a major metropolis. This is Salem, Oregon. “The Super Bowl is kind of a good analogy, but it’s also not. When I’ve talked to land managers especially, they’re like, ‘All right, we’re preparing for maybe a couple thousand to hundreds of thousands of people in a small area,’” Urness says. “But they have no idea. It’s all guesswork.”

Oregon’s small cities, including Salem and Keizer, are grappling with the scope of eclipse visitors—and doing so without any way of measuring the potential impact. There’s never been a natural occurrence quite like this before (or one that spans such a brief moment), and certainly not one that’s benefited from the internet hype machine. The place where the eclipse will be most visible for the longest period of time was just closed off to the public, and people have been reserving space there for months, even years. Urness reported last Monday that Mount Jefferson and Jefferson Park have been closed because of a progressing wildfire. And that’s just as of this week: The fire has been building since late July, and nearing Detroit, Oregon, as well as Marion County (home to Salem and Keizer). Even if there are no further closures, it’s possible that the smoke will make viewing totality difficult throughout the Willamette Valley. All the while, the state is attempting to prepare for an impossible-to-peg surge of people who will now be crowded into an even smaller area.

“It’s just perfect conditions for a forest fire. Fires can move really fast, and between the gridlock of people out there, it’s an apocalyptic scenario,” says Urness. “A big wild fire starting and spreading fast, and there’s hundreds of thousands of people camping or stuck on the roads. They’re worried to the point where they’re stashing firefighting crews in random locations all over the place throughout the forest because they don’t know where it’s going to be, and they don’t expect crews to be able to get there like they normally do. Usually they can target it pretty fast, but if it’s total chaos, they won’t be able to get there. So that’s a big concern.”

Besides possible environmental hazards, there are human hazards to consider. I know these mountains well; for more than 40 years, my family has camped near the base of one of them, Mount Washington, and within sight of the other—a jagged, crooked piece of rock called Three Fingered Jack. A third, the beastly and difficult-to-hike Mount Jefferson, also nearby, is now closed during the eclipse.

“All are super-cool-looking mountains, and they’re right in the path of totality,” says Urness. “The problem is that they’re all pretty technical and pretty challenging to climb, and they kill a couple of people a year on average. So the idea that a bunch of people wearing flip-flops are going to just try to climb Three-Fingered Jack … that’s a concern.”

Urness says that park rangers from Washington are being brought in to help support the sudden influx. “They’ll be at the base stations saying, ‘Hey, if you don’t know how to use ropes and harness, probably don’t do this.’”

The message from the internet, on the other hand, is quite different: You cannot miss this! Go, go, go!

There is money to be made in the eclipse business, and not just for mini-marts and grocery stores peddling eclipse glasses and novelty T-shirts. A natural phenomenon is an event like any other, something to be experienced and capitalized on—and homeowners and landowners in the path of totality are rightly doing exactly that.

Most official campsites have been reserved for months, if not longer, and the closures will affect many of those careful planners. For those who have looked (or are still looking) outside of traditional campgrounds, there remains a variety of options. One of them is Hipcamp, an Airbnb-for-camping platform that has shown up in my Facebook and Instagram feeds at least once a day for the past week.

Via Molly McHugh

Hipcamp CEO Alyssa Ravasio says that she first started seeing an uptick in Oregon listings for eclipse weekend two or three months ago. “Since then, it’s been a bit of a flood.” The platform has been a resource for people looking to enjoy natural phenomena before, but nothing like this, she says. “This is a huge deal. This is the first solar eclipse in 99 years. This is a pretty special thing.”

Scanning Hipcamp, you’ll see campgrounds and farmland, but also front yards. In the last month alone, Hipcamp has added 1,000 campsites in Oregon, Ravasio says. Hipcamp sites are a mix of traditional campgrounds and sites in national and state forests and parks, but also include private properties like ranches or other large spaces. “For the eclipse, we’re seeing more small properties, which isn’t historical for Hipcamp,” Ravasio says. By small properties, she means front yards and driveways, which users are renting out for a price.

But in addition to these makeshift campsites, there are still a surprising amount of spaces left for visitors for a fraction of the costs of hotels (and some Airbnb rentals). In fact, a handful of Hipcamp employees will travel to Oregon and Wyoming, and the support team is readying for the eclipse. “We’ll be staffing up to ensure that the weekend goes smoothly, and [we’ll] be reaching out to hosts and campers proactively to ensure they’re prepared for the trip of a lifetime,” Hipcamp head of customer experience Tyson Jacques said in a statement. Ravasio says her platform has never seen this amount of activity surrounding a natural phenomenon.

A camper van Via Hipcamp

Originally, Hipcamp hosted only official campgrounds and no private land. But luckily for internet-savvy homeowners in the path of totality, the service opened up its database to private land in June 2015. “We started working with private landowners because one, everything was getting booked up, but also because one of the downsides of the internet and the outdoors is that it can lead to situations where the most popular spots get way, way, way more popular and it can get out of control,” says Ravasio. “We’re really focused on opening up access to new places, and like with the eclipse, really trying to show people there are so many amazing places you can go. You don’t need to be in a super-crowded parking lot at a hotel. There are thousands and thousands of acres waiting for you and landowners who would be thrilled to host you and share this experience with you.”

In addition to its camping catalog, Hipcamp created an interactive map that shows sites that are available along the path of totality. “We took the [geographic information system] shape from NASA and put it on our map to make people’s lives easier,” says Ravasio. “We’d just built the GIS capability recently.”

The feature allows users to see whether a site is, say, inside Yosemite National Park or just outside of its grounds. “We’re definitely looking to do this for future natural events, like asteroid showers or monarch migrations. We’re going to sort of let nature lead our marketing cycle,” Ravasio says with a laugh.

Via Hipcamp

Essentially, landowners renting space during the eclipse are selling a view. There's no entry fee required to see the sky, and yet numerous people are charging for exactly that. But for many, experiencing the outdoors can be overwhelming. Cutting out these complications is what's at Hipcamp's core.

“I started Hipcamp because I was looking at the outdoors and looking at the way our culture is moving, and I kind of got this urgent feeling that, ‘Whoa, if someone doesn’t build great technology that connects people with nature and makes nature feel really accessible, it’s not guaranteed people will keep doing that,’ you know?” says Ravasio. “Like, maybe they’ll just switch to virtual reality, right?!” she laughs in that half-joking, half-not way we all seem to do when talking about the potential bleakness of our digital futures.

“Using the internet to get people off the internet is definitely a beautiful irony here. You can look at nature and at the eclipse as the pinnacle of the antidote to the downsides of our society.”

Ravasio will be in the Salem area for the eclipse. She plans to call the Warms Springs Reservation and ask if she can climb this “really cool mountain” there. “We want to get up really high because I hear you get a really good view.” Of course, if that doesn’t work out, she says there are a few Hipcamp locations she could always fall back on.

Hipcamp and its sharing-economy ilk are relatively new to the Salem-Keizer area. Lyft and Uber were just introduced there last month—and while Airbnb has been in the area for some time, the city has been keeping an eye on the revenue generated by the app and recently passed new rules requiring Airbnb hosts to obtain proper licenses, and preventing apartment renters from renting out rooms. This will go into effect before eclipse weekend, and Airbnb says the new regulations will make it easier for hosts to get permits—and according to an Airbnb report, 88 percent of those renters over eclipse weekend in Oregon are first-timers. “There are 4,600 booked guest arrivals in cities in the path of the eclipse—5.5x more guest arrivals than the same night on surrounding weeks,” the report reads. “These guest arrivals account for nearly a quarter of guest arrivals in the state the night before the eclipse—leading to the biggest night for Airbnb ever in Oregon. … The average nightly-per-room rate of booked listings in the path of the eclipse is $232.” In Salem, the average is $221 for the night, an exorbitantly high price—but easily more affordable than a hotel room in the area for that weekend. Airbnb says those renting out homes in the path of the eclipse in Oregon will make $1 million that night. This is the most bookings Airbnb has had around a natural phenomenon, and like Hipcamp, the company will have staff ready to assist hosts and guests if need be.

Via Airbnb

Airbnb is doing more than just connecting renters and weekend-long landlords, though. The company is also partnering with National Geographic to host a special viewing, wherein lucky winners will get to stay the night in a “transparent geodesic dome complete with an observation deck and a variety of telescopes” near Bend, Oregon, and learn about the upcoming event. In the morning, they’ll be whisked away on a private jet to the Oregon coast. They will be in air then, flying through the path of totality.

A tent lit up at night under a starry sky Via Airbnb

Is it all overkill? Maybe—but I’ve seen the Airbnb contest advertised in my Facebook and Twitter feeds for weeks now and I can tell you, it’s effective. Scrolling through the gorgeous Hipcamp listings are giving me a sort of preemptive FOMO, too. Just looking through eclipse events listed on Facebook is becoming overwhelming. This moment will last for some two-odd minutes; how am I going to spend it? Or should I simply walk outside my apartment in Portland to witness what I can, alone and with little fanfare, without contributing to the strain in my sacred hometown and surrounding areas?

I ask Urness what he thinks about the popularity Salem is gaining from the eclipse and its internet following. “I think it’s great. I mean, if I didn’t have a ton of people showing up at my house, I would rent it out, make a bunch of money for doing nothing,” he says. My parents seem to side with Urness: I asked them if my friends and I could crash at their house the night before and walk down to the Willamette River, about a 10-minute walk, in the morning. Sure, they said. But they don’t quite understand what the fuss is all about. And they’re dreading the havoc sure to come to this otherwise sleepy city this weekend.

There’s some fear of the unknown for Salem-Keizer and for other small cities in the path of totality. People are being told to stock their shelves, to stay off the roads entirely. “It’s probably the biggest event in the history of the state, and I don’t think that’s exaggerating it either,” says Urness. “I mean, everyone from [the Oregon Department of Transportation] to Federal Land Management just say they have no clue. They’re just grasping at straws; I think they’re just playing it by ear and whatever happens, happens.”

Here's our eclipse HQ @akbrandi @akophie

A post shared by Molly McHugh (@mollygrams) on

The panicky feeling in the air seems right; all these people, all this attention, is all new. And so is the thing we’re about to try to see. “I’ve never seen a solar eclipse,” Ravasio tells me when we chat about our respective eclipse day plans. “But from what I’ve heard, the experience of it is just truly legendary. It’s supposed to be the only chance a human has to really grasp the scope of our solar system. I think there will be four planets that are visible in the sky. It’s just this awe-inspiring moment.”

Just hearing her talk about it momentarily punctures any cynicism I have over my soon-to-be-crowded hometown and the likely horrible traffic I’ll face next week driving there. When I call my mom later in the evening and ask how many friends I can bring, she is welcoming but also still agape at the hoopla all of this is creating. “Yeah but … at one point, you can see four planets in the sky!” I parrot to her. I’m not even sure whether that’s true, or if so whether I’ll be able to see it. But I plan on being there to find out.

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this piece gave an incorrect location for the 2016 Super Bowl; it was in Santa Clara, California, and not Santa Clarita.

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