Aspen, CO

Mountain towns reconsider pros and cons of robust tourism

Amiee White Beazley

By Amiee White Beazley

Towns throughout the Mountain West are reassessing tourism.

Heeding feedback from residents who call these communities home, Destination Management Organizations (DMO) throughout the region are searching for sustainable ways to benefit the local community, the economy and the visitor.
Photo Courtesy Aspen Chamber/ by Elle Logan

'It's crucial we avoid a residential rebellion'

Recently the Aspen Chamber Resort Association (ACRA) – a hybrid chamber/DMO – released the Aspen Destination Management Plan.

The plan is the result of a seven-month engagement process in 2021 that reached out to locals through a variety of means, including surveys and town halls, to gain feedback on how tourism in the community could address visitor pressure, enhance the visitor's experience and preserve the small-town character of Aspen.

Ultimately it shifts ACRA's role from attracting more visitors to educating tourists and managing their impact on local life. ACRA will take the wheel on issues such as enhanced visitor education, improving the resident and visitor experience, catalyzing sustainable choices, diversifying visitor markets, and partnering with other entities to solve traffic problems and provide more efficient (and cleaner) transportation. The new plan reads: "It's crucial we avoid a residential rebellion."

The people of Aspen, it seems, have had enough of the crowds, the traffic, and pressure on its natural resources and say it's time for change.

But can even the gentlest reduction of tourism work for residents and local businesses?

"The very act of protecting quality of life for residents is a sound business decision," says Eliza Voss, Vice President of Marketing and Destination Management at ACRA.

"People want to visit places where people want to live. If you plan for the citizens that live in a place, for things to function well and for them to enjoy their life the visitor will also be happy. These things are inextricably tied together, so if you aren't protecting quality of life, the unique qualities of your destination's character, then you aren't going to protect the bottom line."

According to Voss, other Colorado communities are also rethinking their approaches to tourism.

"Many destinations are in this process currently: Jackson Hole, Sedona, Park City, Big Sky and Vail. Breckenridge is probably the poster child for Destination Management, and they see positive results. Their town council adopted the plan principles, and they are seeing great progress working across agencies. They are resident-first focused, and release most of their campaigns internally facing before reaching external markets."
Photo Courtesy Aspen Chamber/ by C2 Photography

Breckenridge leads the way in sustainable tourism

"The Breckenridge community is particularly passionate about destination management practices and developing sustainable tourism initiatives," says Lauren Swanson, Public Relations Director at the Breckenridge Tourism Office.

"The vision for Breckenridge's community-driven destination management efforts is to ensure economic sustainability for the community while achieving 'harmony of quality of life for residents and quality of place for visitors.' Educational communications, like pre-arrival messaging, helps set guest expectations, improving overall experience and post-arrival behaviors," she said.

Strategic marketing focuses on inviting destination guests while increasing overnight visitor dispersal, spending and length of stay to support a year-round economy. The agency promotes summer and fall visitation instead of peak travel periods, like the winter ski season, to help ensure year-round economic viability through consistent and diversified visitation.
Courtesy Breckenridge Tourism Office/by Bob Winsett

Breckenridge spearheaded the effort toward what is essentially tourism crowd control, developing a Destination Management Plan in 2019 to identify ways to achieve a more balanced long-term future for both public and private sectors. It centers on elevating the long-term viability of the local economy, maintaining the community's authentic character, protecting the environment, and improving the overall destination experience for visitors and residents.

Destination management programs find quick success

Breckenridge has made headway by balancing the needs of the community and the demands of visitors by successfully launching initiatives such as:

· B Like Breckenridge," a stewardship campaign, designed to inspire guests and residents to act with intention as it relates to nature, each other and the general community;

·, an online resource that connects businesses and residents with resources to help address community challenges unique to tourism destinations, like housing, mental health services, guest-service training programs;

· Breck 101 an experiential guest-service training program that connects its guest-facing workforce with local activities, restaurants, and businesses (for free), while educating the workforce on destination management practices and community resources.

And while not specifically a part of the destination plan, Breck continues its commitment to sustainable tourism when it hosts Mountain Towns 2030 Climate Solutions Summit this fall. The three-day event brings together leaders from mountain and outdoor communities to elevate common issues and discuss achievable solutions that address climate change and accelerate a collective movement to zero-carbon emissions.

"The Town of Breckenridge recognizes the effect that climate change has on a destination that's largely dependent on natural resources, climate and landscapes, and has demonstrated a commitment to sustainability through an ever-evolving series of environmental initiatives - leading with the SustainableBreck plan," says Swanson.

"The current SustainableBreck plan has been in play for the past 10 years, and the Town of Breckenridge is in the process of outlining a new plan that will guide the community's environmental efforts for the next decade."

Balancing Colorado's mountain communities' needs and environmental impact while supporting the economy is a balancing act that these small towns take seriously.

Setting the roadmap now will hopefully mean happier locals, satisfied travelers and thriving economies for years to come.

For Aspen, according to Voss, now is the time to take action to preserve the town's character, which so many love.

The authors of the Destination Management Plan write: "If Aspen chooses to maintain the status quo, it will not only have a negative impact on the quality of life for residents, but also begin to limit investment opportunities for the local economy."

"Aspen is a well-known destination," says Voss. "We aren't going to fundamentally put 'the cat back in the bag,' but that's not really the directive either. ACRA, as Aspen's Destination Management Organization, has a responsibility to provide educational information ensuring people understand the breadth of the Aspen experience, can recreate responsibly, and to form a connection to the place.

“Once people feel a connection to a destination they are valuable visitors, enhancing the place from not just an economic standpoint, but also contributing to community. Perhaps the biggest impact will be our citizens feeling heard."

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Amiee White Beazley is a travel, food and wine journalist whose stories, essays and photography have been featured in publications such as The Washington Post, Departures and Travel + Leisure.

Aspen, CO

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