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Our View: Locals will scrutinize how tourists are managed

Mention “mass tourism” and one city that comes to mind is Venice, Italy, with multitudes of tourists walking its narrow streets and riding in gondolas over fragile gray-brown canals. During the pandemic, when tourism stopped in Venice, images were broadcast of dolphins swimming in clear waters.

What a sight! Old-time locals had never seen such a thing. And how were Venice’s waterways able to recover? All the tourists came to Colorado mountain towns instead.

OK, we jest. But the Southwest, in particular Silverton and Durango, were inundated with tourists before, during and after COVID-19. Our public lands aren’t getting much of a break.

Tourist marketing organizations witnessed this. And as reported in The Durango Herald on Sunday, Visit Silverton and Visit Durango swiveled from recruiting tourists to managing them. In 2019, Visit Durango changed from a destination marketing organization to a destination management and marketing organization.

So how exactly tourists will be managed is the $2 million question. That’s the amount of revenue Visit Durango is expected to receive in 2024 from its 55% cut of the lodgers tax of 5.25%. The remaining funding structure is 20% for transportation, 14% for arts/culture and 11% for City Council discretion, according to the 2021 ballot measure approved by voters.

You can bet, after that $2 million payment, Durango residents’ interest in these allocations will be renewed.

After collecting additional lodgers tax revenue in July 2022, the city considered asking voters to change the funding structure, reducing the tourism marketing allocation to 35% with 20% going to affordable and workforce housing, and child care for local workers. But Council decided against it, saying that allocating funds from marketing to housing solutions wouldn’t impact the housing crisis.

Today might be a different story. Visit Durango, currently in contract negotiations with the city, must mitigate to benefit not just tourists, but all area residents, as well as protect our resources, as much as humanly possible. It’s a tall order.

With tourists in the city, lanes of responsibility between Visit Durango and the city – signage comes to mind – must be clearly defined.

Otherwise, this lodgers tax revenue funding structure question could very well go back to voters to decide.

Tourists are a tough group to wrangle. Many camp or stay outside Durango, so they’re not even paying the lodgers tax.

In managing hordes, we particularly appreciated the San Juan Mountains Association hiring ambassadors and stationing staff members at the base of Ice Lake Trailhead, where up to 800 people per day visited at the height of the pandemic.

“Ambassador” can sound like a volunteer position for retirees or low-paid interns. We’d like to see real dollars go toward an effort such as this, with more roaming ambassadors greeting visitors, asking where they’ve been and gently suggesting lesser-known – but resilient – places that can stand more people.

Or places just as magical, including Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. (Hot in summer, yes, but worthwhile.) Or Mancos, Dolores or Cortez to wander around.

As much as we appreciate the Leave No Trace message, sadly, many tourists don’t honor this. A (hiking) boots on the ground approach with ambassadors could make for more personal, lasting impressions.

Widespread permit systems may be another necessity, particularly in San Juan County, where 87% of its 200,000 acres is public lands.

Still, tourists will continue to come en masse to our delicate high country in summer. They’ll visit our historic towns and spend money – once they find parking. They’ll bankroll our economy. They’ll fall in love with the Southwest.

And while here on vacation, some will buy second homes, unintentionally contributing to local housing woes.

The focus on surgical marketing and management of tourists is appreciated. Especially the management part. Because as crowds keep coming, residents will take a closer look at money spent on managing tourists.