FEATURE: The Tourist Trap

By on November 29, 2016

How excessive tourism affects beloved places and their inhabitants.

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker, “If it’s tourist season why can’t we shoot ‘em?” It captures some locals’ sentiment toward visitors. It’s a love-hate relationship. It wasn’t too long ago Jackson Hole discovered the economic stability “dudes” brought to the valley. They came, they spent, and they left us with a little pocket money to get through the long winters.

Jackson Hole has always been three frenetic months of making hay, sandwiched between weather fierce enough to freeze out crops, commerce and company. When summer wrapped up, most locals barely hung on. That was a hundred years ago. Now, locals barely hang on through the summer season that never seems to end.

The deal we had with tourists was: You leave in September and give our valley back to us. But these days, May begins the rush when it used to be June. September is the new August, and even through much of October the hustle and bustle of being a host resort town to millions of global sightseers has still not wound down. Jackson Hole has become summer season, ski season, and two weeks of mud when many leave to catch their breath.

Statistically, only November and April remain months when out-of-state tags are not readily spotted in Nora’s parking lot. In fact, many restaurants close for these off-season months or offer 2-for-1 specials for anyone still around. It’s these 30 days between seasons that locals have to themselves to enjoy their turf, yet most take off then to become tourists—to have someone else take their lunch order, massage their weary backs, and show them around town.

Resort towns benefit, of course, from every tour bus and inbound flight, but when does tourism become too much of a good thing? What happens when service industry workers are stretched to the limit and the courtesy smile begins to fade? The traffic, overcrowding, and strain on infrastructure can begin to degrade visitor experience. And host city residents can become stressed out and fed up with wave after wave of camera-toting “tourons.” While residents bask in the economic fruits of a tourist economy, what are the unavoidable concessions?

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Pack your bags

First off, it’s important to note that Jackson Hole, as unique as it is, is not the only community reaching a breaking point with hyper-tourism. People are globetrotting like never before. International tourism rose four percent to an estimated 1.2 billion travelers in 2015, according to the World Tourism Organization. As so-called “Golden Oldies,” jetsetters are aging now, with more disposable income, more leisure time and more flexibility in schedules.

For the hospitality industry, a potential client can be any resident of the world and, thanks to the internet, they can be targeted and reached easier than ever before by marketers. Last fall Canadian Business reported, “In tourism, there’s no such thing as off-season anymore.” The story suggested the rise of online booking sites, which deliver info on deals during non-peak times, as a factor driving travel in shoulder seasons.

And where is everyone going? Everywhere, it seems. From Barcelona to Bend, Paris to Palm Springs, Key West to the Great American West—the data indicates more and more people are looking to travel for enriching experiences. For many host communities, the interest and income is welcome. Initially. Now, however, in many global hotspots, local citizens are wondering if all the attention is worth it.

“Norway is being destroyed because of Frozen [the movie] tourists,” asserted one headline from AOL this past summer. In fact, Norway slashed its promotion budget recently in an attempt to slow the overwhelming amount of visitors to the fjord nation.

Costa Rican gems like Manuel Antonio and Quepos are straining under the weight of heavy visitation and a blitzkrieg of cruise ship passengers. Chamber of Commerce president Harry Bodan told the Tico Times last month that Quepos welcomes 68 cruise ships a year—with as many as 4,000 aboard. “[The park] can’t handle it,” he said.

In Bend, Ore., The Bulletin noted its city of about 87,000 was struggling to deal with “too much tourism.” Trailheads are mobbed, beer cans are scattered along the Deschutes River, and area parks and forests are beginning to show the wear and tear.

The Miami Herald reports laid back Key West is as slammed as ever. “Summer is when the locals have the time and energy to come out to play—or simply to do their jobs without being pushed to the limit,” the paper stated. “For the people who live and work here, the price of a successful season is a stressful life in busy bars and restaurants, crowded streets, popular hotels, and fully booked trips on the water.”

Europe is not immune to the tourism crunch, either. Paris used to shut down in August. No more. Barcelona is fast becoming another Venice as locals flee the city in droves, according to Fortune, due to Airbnb and other short-stay apartments driving up rents. Venice, meanwhile, is a hollowed out theme park, empty of its original residents and crippled by years of unchecked tourism, the Daily Beast reported. “The tourism boom is driving out the locals. They can’t afford the higher rents propelled by foreign demands and the authorities turning a blind eye to illegal renting and leasing,” wrote Elizabeth Becker in 2013.

“Any city that sacrifices itself on the altar of mass tourism will be abandoned by its people when they can no longer afford the cost of housing, food, and basic everyday necessities,” added The Guardian. “We’re starting to see Venice without Venetians.”

The metrics of hospitality

So Jackson Hole is not alone in experiencing a crushing summer and the resulting fallout from a valley of 24,000 full-time residents hosting four million visitors every year. The summer of 2015 was record-breaking in every way. So was last summer. And what of the feeling that not only are the summers more intense and more crowded, but they seem to start earlier and end later?

The latest Jackson Hole Economic Dashboard indicates everything is up in 2016—on pace to set another all-time high. In Jackson Hole and throughout the Rocky Mountain region, visitation for 2016 will again break all previous records. “Now that summer lodging activity is approaching the finish line with just a few weeks to go, a fifth consecutive summer record is assured,” reported Ralf Garrison, director of DestiMetrics last month.

Comparing this year with last, August’s lodging tax revenue and sales tax collections were up, 6 and 8 percent, respectively. The unemployment rate for September 2016 was lower than September 2015—a stat reflected all summer long in column inch comparisons between jobs and rentals in the newspaper classifieds.

For the entire summer season, jobs were more plentiful than ever. Places to live were not. The jobs-to-rentals ratio for May was 8.78 (inches of Help Wanted to every inch of Rentals). August’s ratio was 4.6 (15.3 percent higher than 2015), while the October ratio cooled to 2.9 (still, 61.5 percent higher than in October 2015).

And did we pack ‘em in. Even for a rain-soaked October (the wettest in recorded history), occupancy rates last month were gangbusters. The occupancy rate for October 2016 was 18.1 percent higher than the same month last year, with rooms fetching an average of $205 (up 37 percent over 2015). September was strong as well. Occupancy rates for that month were 3.6 percent better than in 2015, with a 21.7 percent increase in average room rates ($277).

The Jackson Hole Airport did 18 percent more business last October than in October 2015. Year-to-date enplanements are up 11 percent over the previous year.

Visitation in both nearby national parks was down slightly in October due to the weather, but both Yellowstone and Grand Teton are on pace to break last year’s stupendous gate numbers.

Visitors are expected to keep coming, too. According to DestriMetrics data, on-the-books occupancy for the upcoming six-month period is up 26 percent compared to last year at this time.

Tourism drives the economy in Jackson Hole and the trickledown is clearly having an effect. The county issued more business licenses (+171 percent) and more construction permits (+42 percent) in October 2016 than in October 2015. Year-to-date numbers of both are also up double-digits. Residential construction total value for October 2016 was up by 188 percent compared to October 2015, and commercial construction total value for October 2016 was 52 percent higher than the previous year. Year-to-date totals for both residential and commercial construction value are up 76 and 187 percent, respectively.

161130coverfeat-3_origTraffic: where rubber meets the road

Mindboggling numbers simply reinforce the notion we are still exploding in nearly every measurable way in Teton County. Traffic counts back that up, and it’s not only tourists headed to the river and the rodeo. It’s “1T,” “12,” and “22” tags on their way cooking, cleaning, and building for the Jackson Hole guest. A breakdown of WYDOT’s traffic numbers for summer was predictably off the charts and, maybe surprisingly, local motorist-driven.

First, the increases. Traffic was unbearable in 2015. It was worse this past summer. Daily averages were up across the board on nearly every Jackson ingress/egress. WYDOT plans for a general two percent increase in traffic, annually. The valley’s been doing way better than that lately.

But what’s really interesting is a look inside the numbers. Comparison of weekend averages from the summers of 2014 to 2015 to 2016 show a moderate increase if any. At some WYDOT road counters, weekend traffic was actually down slightly this summer compared to the previous two. One would expect weekend traffic to be primarily tourist-driven (excuse the pun). Weekday warriors, however, sped to and from work in Jackson in all-time high numbers.

Want more evidence it’s us who are clogging the highways in and out of Jackson? Take for example the two most heavily trafficked arteries into Jackson on a typical morning. By the way, traffic volumes for every single town and city in Wyoming typically peak around midday, indicating travelers are checking out of hotels and hitting the road. In Teton County, counts are highest during rush hours—morning and afternoon.

Take the Snake River Canyon for instance. It carries an average of 450 vehicles across the Teton–Lincoln county line on a weekday morning in the seven o’clock hour. Those are commuters. On a weekend morning, the count is significantly lower. Last summer, on Sunday, July 10, for example, just 68 vehicles tripped the counter in the Snake River Canyon in the 7 a.m. hour. On July 4—a mega-day for tourist travel—only 109 cars passed through the canyon. That was a Monday, but most workers had it off.

On Highway 22, an average of 1,120 vehicles stream into Jackson from over the pass and the West Bank on a typical weekday morning during the 7 a.m. hour. Same for the eight o’clock hour. On weekends, that average number is less than 400. On July 10, a mere 365 vehicles used Highway 22 to get into Jackson from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. On the Fourth, that number was 557.

We’re not the only ones seeing an increase in local commuter traffic. Aspen Chamber Resort Association president Debbie Braun told the Denver Post last month, “It’s easy to blame the visitors, but a lot of the traffic that people are complaining about in downtown Aspen is local, including construction workers racing to finish projects in Aspen’s brief building window.”

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Autumn is the new summer

Chaotic tourist seasons are good in some ways, obviously. But even business owners in Jackson admit there is a law of diminishing returns—a point where 10- to 12-hour days of playing host begin to frazzle those in the front of house and on the front lines.

Local photographer John Slaughter juggles multiple jobs in Jackson. He also lives out of his vehicle because of the valley’s severe housing shortage.

“Everyone’s on edge,” Slaughter told Big Life magazine. “You either work your face off, which I and most of my friends do, with multiple jobs to make it work. And that’s OK because you can always squeeze in that hour mountain bike ride. But at some point we are unable to do that because we’re suddenly all working three to six jobs and paying $1,000 a month for a closet.”

The stress on the workforce leads to burnout. Long days, longer seasons, leave no time, no room to detox or recharge.

Admittedly, the Travel and Tourism Board has boosted the valley’s shoulder season popularity with robust marketing for spring and fall. That has helped extend Jackson’s busiest season, summer, into the also popular winter season. Board chair Alex Klein said his group doesn’t spend a dime on promoting summer, but Goran ĆOrluka, a professor in the department of professional studies at University of Split in Croatia, says promotion of any kind is partly to blame for oversaturation of a destination.

“It should be noted that the effects of strategies to increase the number of tourists in the off-peak periods, even where they have succeeded in doing so, have not always been positive,” ĆOrluka  writes. “At some destinations this has actually led to an increased acuteness of seasonal concentration, as the efforts made to attract tourists in the off-peak season also increased the number of peak season visitors.”

A quick scan of area hospitality providers zeroes in on the dichotomy of the Hole’s relentless push-pull marketing. Three Creek Ranch’s website reads: “Many of us remember the ‘old days’ when after Labor Day weekend they would roll up the sidewalks in Jackson Hole and businesses would shut down until the ski resorts opened. Today, Jackson has become a bustling town throughout the fall filled with conferences attracted by special rates…”

Spring Creek Ranch boasts: “It’s the shoulder season here in Jackson Hole, and with the trees turning the valley into a bright golden playground, there’s no better time of year to experience the Tetons, [w]hether you’re looking to do some late fall hiking or hit the slopes during the early season storms (shhhhh, don’t tell anyone, it’s a local secret)…”

Barker-Ewing admits in its marketing materials, “The shoulder-, or off-season, seems to grow shorter each year in Jackson as more festivals and events draw people to town year round.”

Forbes Travel Guide noticed the extended summer as well. “Locals often say September or October is their favorite month. With the increased popularity of the Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival, September is now almost as busy as August,” the magazine reported.

“I haven’t had a ‘spring break’ in about three years. I don’t remember the last time I was able to get out of town in the fall, either,” said Sam McCollum, who commutes from Driggs, Idaho, to a construction job in Jackson. “This is first hunting season I didn’t buy a tag. I just don’t have the time anymore. When I get a little break from work, I have stuff to catch up on around the house. There’s just no down time. I feel like I’m spinning my wheels, in a rat race or a hamster wheel, you know?”

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Hilary Cooper knows. She was just elected to the San Miguel County board of commissioners where she will make quality of life her primary issue. The Telluride resident told the Denver Post, “We have to work our butts off to make it work financially to live here, but if we have to sacrifice our quality of life now, it’s no longer worth it. We don’t want to kick a gift horse in the mouth, but this summer just felt like too much. [And] it used to be that May was time for locals to leave the mountains to visit mom, Moab or Mexico. Now it’s just one long peak, with the busy winter blurring into summer into fall into winter.”

Sounds familiar.

Those in the hospitality industry aren’t the only ones stressed by hordes of travelers. Both Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks have hired dedicated social scientists to study the effects of people on the parks, and parks on people. Wildlife tends to suffer under the strain of increased visitation as well.

Research published in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry in 2007 suggests wildlife experience “stress physiological responses to tourist pressure in a wild populations.” Collection of fecal samples of the European pine marten found significantly higher levels of glucocorticoid metabolites, androgen, progestin and estrogen during the busier spring and summer season. “Tourist pressure in natural parks is a potential source of stress and may cause an increase in the adrenal activity of wild populations of European pine marten,” the authors write.

Loving it to death

Aside from the frenetic pace and the stress it can induce, excessive tourism has other notable downsides. Orluka published a research paper expounding on Richard Butler’s seminal 1980 study of tourism and its effect and stages on a given area. He cites several potential negative impacts of tourism including employment (difficulty training and retaining staff, unstable labor market, poor pay and long hours, lack of career opportunities); ecological (disturbance of wildlife, congestion of natural areas, pollution); socio-cultural (overcrowding, traffic, noise, lack of parking, long lines, diminished quality of life) and visitor experience (reduced enjoyment due to overcrowding and high prices, lack of quality service).

Deidre Ashley is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center. She is seeing a new and different kind of anxiety setting in at a time when budget cuts make it extremely difficult for her organization to offer assistance.

“People are very, very stressed. We are at a tipping point,” Ashley said. “It’s the nature of our tourist economy. We have all this development and big hotels, and you are looking at housing being a symptom of that. Everybody who works here, even owners and managers of a business, everyone is working a lot of hours. We are seeing the effects of adding jobs and growth in general. That growth needs to be supported at all levels including social services. We are seeing workers feeling the stress of having to do more.”

Burnout is common in Jackson Hole and other tourist destinations. Matt Johnson’s “8 Disadvantages of Tourism: The Dark Side of Vacations” identifies some of the pressures host cities are under when the Samsonite tsunami hits and won’t quit. How many of these can be applied to Jackson Hole?

“Many times, local governments are unable to prepare for the dramatic influx of people during busy season … without sufficient planning, tourism can put a strain on local facilities and infrastructure, which may prove difficult, and perhaps impossible, for a community to overcome,” Johnson writes. “Excessive tourism can strip locals of a feeling of privacy. It may be due to newly packed restaurants and bars, or the very streets that used to be empty. It’s not unusual to feel as if their humble town has been taken over by outsiders.”

High prices, fluctuation in the job market, and degradation of natural land resources are other pressures a popular travel spot has to deal with. If government leaders don’t react, problems get worse. “Because local governments of smaller towns and cities are easily overwhelmed, especially if they happen to be a popular tourist destination, they may start focusing on the potential influx of money brought in by tourists’ dollars, sometimes at the cost of focusing on local issues,” Johnson said.

Six-year resident Sandra House noted, “I love that tourists are able to come here and enjoy the things that attracted me to Jackson, but it’s getting so I feel like all I’m doing is catering to them. I don’t have the time to do what I love to do—hiking, biking, floating the river—when all I do is make sure visitors can have fun doing these things.”

USA Today travel writer Carole Simm says residents indeed may feel like prisoners in their own houses and neighborhoods. “They don’t want to deal with the heavy congestion. Community leaders who emphasize tourist opportunities may neglect buildings and services that support residents,” she wrote in a recent article.

Jackson Hole may be entering what G. Doxey calls the “Annoyance Stage” of his widely referenced 1975 irritation index, or “irridex,” model of tourism. In it, Doxey speculates that at some point “saturation is approached and the local people have misgivings. Planners attempt to control via increasing infrastructure rather then limiting growth. Industry is nearing saturation, and locals are annoyed by the number of visitors taking advantage of their town.”

161130coverfeat-6_origInfrastructure in the valley is already being taxed to the limit. The Jackson Police Department reported a five percent increase in calls for service in 2016 over the previous summer. Lieutenant Cole Nethercott attributed it to the shear number of people in town. Outside influences also bring big city problems. Drug use in Jackson is on the rise—from heroin to marijuana—local teens and twentysomethings in the service industry are partying harder in their limited free time.

Sarah Nicholls, an associate professor in the Departments of Community Sustainability and Geography at Michigan State University, has never been to Jackson Hole. She doesn’t need to visit to know what’s happening here. She frequently comments on the tourism blitz hitting Traverse City, Mich. A recent article in the local paper there was headlined: “Traverse City council to tourists: We’re just not that into you.”

“I have never been to Jackson Hole, but I am all too familiar with the scenario [there],” Nicholls said. “The two planning alternatives at this point are essentially to increase infrastructure or limit growth. I suspect that the former is the typical strategy, though often that only serves to increase visitation rather than address the underlying issue.”

Nicholls added that attempts to deal with overcrowding might be too drastic or painful for many towns…if not impossible.

“[One] way to limit numbers is to deliberately limit capacity—lodging places, parking spaces, etc. But that again is a big decision with economic implications,” Nicholls said. “That’s easier to imagine in places where most places are locally owned, but once most or all accommodations and [other amenity providers] are corporate owned, the community has unfortunately lost a lot of control of its own development and resources.”

In a 2001 research paper for University of Minnesota, Glenn Kreag noted the negative effects of crowding and congestion that appear emblematic of Jackson Hole.

“As people congregate, congestion and crowding produces stress, annoyance, anger, and other negative attitudes. Hordes of visitors may impede local businesses, prevent residents from accomplishing normal activities, and compete for space,” Kreag wrote. “Tourism construction, especially hotels, may be inappropriate in scale and style with respect to other structures and the landscape. In some areas, recreational second homes and condominium developments create major crowding and congestion problems.”

Kreag added, “People will often feel stressed over the new, increasingly hectic community and personal pace of life. They may claim the result is no better than before or perhaps even worse.” PJH


About Jake Nichols

Jake is a work in progress.

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