Tourism board to conduct sustainability study
For the Sky-Hi News
In the two years since COVID-19 came to the US, tourism in Grand County has seen record levels of visitors enjoying all that its landscape has to offer. But while some might see this as a boon, hoards of travelers can lead to “overtourism.” a term describing a level of visitation that can disrupt the quality of life for residents as well as the viability of natural resources and attractions.
“(The concept of overtourism) is easy for residents to understand when they see crowded roads, or get to a trail and the parking’s used up, or they find trash and the trails are in bad shape,” said Ron Ellis, president of the Grand County Colorado Tourism Board (GCCTB). “They see what happens when things aren’t managed well and (tourism) isn’t in balance.”
In order to find that balance, towns would do well to understand the intricacies at play when a place like Grand County explodes in popularity. And to that end, GCCTB will conduct a study on sustainable travel.
Coraggio Group, a business management consulting firm based in Portland, OR, is leading the study. According to their website, their tourism practice brings together urban planners, economists, destination strategists, and organizational development experts who create a “total destination health” plan for communities. Coraggio Group’s clients have included Travel Oregon, the San Francisco Travel Association, the Arizona Office of Tourism, and more.
Ellis explained that the main aim of the study is to create a plan of action.
“It will create a county-wide vision of what sustainable travel means, so then different areas can start tackling their individual issues in a coordinated and complimentary way,” he said.
GCCTB seeks to get all Grand County stakeholders involved in the study to determine each group’s unique challenges. Stakeholders include full-time residents, tourism-based businesses such as resorts and guest ranches, and governmental entities.
Some challenges are easy to tackle, and GCCTB is already researching solutions.
One is “educating visitors on how to take care of the environment they are using,” Ellis said.
An example is the Colorado-based company Leave No Trace, which teaches the importance of leaving nature as one found it.
Another solution is diverting traffic away from popular areas, such as Adam’s Falls in Grand Lake or North Inlet Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park.
“There are natural recreation opportunities all over Grand County. But invariably, on a busy summer day, it seems like everyone is on the same 2 or 3 trails. We can do things to move part of that traffic geographically to less traveled areas through education and promotion. Then (visitors) can make decisions like, ‘let’s not fight the crowds here, let’s find another place that doesn’t get as much traffic,” said Ellis.
Examples of less-traveled areas may include Wolford Mountain Reservoir in Kremmling or Williams Fork Reservoir in Parshall. These areas may be see less traffic, but they are no less beautiful than more popular spots. Both are excellent spots for fishing, camping and boating.
“The western side of the county has much more growth potential, so let’s move some traffic farther west, where it’s not as busy.” Ellis said.
Another solution is spreading out tourism throughout the year, instead of having spurts of busy periods.
“On 4th of July weekend, we don’t need more people!” Ellis said with a laugh. “But there are many times during the year that the tourist economy isn’t running, so we have a lot of capacity for additional visitors. We can use our resources to shift people and encourage them to come in off times. (Like) midweek instead of the weekends.”
He added that dispersing tourism throughout the year will also help small businesses thrive during the shoulder seasons.
The study will also look at the sustainability of large resorts, which draw in huge crowds. For example, Winter Park Resort has nearly 1 million visitors per year, and “…may need to do some specific things themselves for sustainable travel,” said Ellis.
He sees Winter Park Resort and Devil’s Thumb Resort & Spa as two potential partners in GCCTB’s move towards sustainability.
Ellis conceded that the trickiest part of the study is finding what works for all facets of the county.
“It’s not a simple thing to balance those competing interests, because they do compete,” Ellis said. “Winter Park has a different set of issues than Granby, Grand Lake, or Kremmling.”
Some countywide solutions for sustainability would be improving road infrastructure, expanding hiking trail systems, or mitigating the construction of second homes to allow for affordable housing.
“These issues get much more complicated, and require governmental involvement, grants, or other funding,” Ellis said.
Overall, the study will be an educational experience for the stakeholders.
“We all have some learning to do in this process,” Ellis said. “The tourism industry needs to think about how to do business without causing harm to the ecosystem….(also) the residents need to understand the importance of tourism for our economy.”
Tourism affects everything in Grand, from home construction and property values, to how many restaurants and shops are in the area, to how much gets invested in improving trail systems and outdoor recreation.
“We wouldn’t have all these attractions and amenities without tourism,” said Ellis. “We need to protect the tourism industry as much as possible for our economic benefit, but not at the cost of the environment, natural assets, or quality of life for people who live here.”
Tourism is a double-edged sword, having both benefits and determents. Visitors will always be drawn to Grand’s pristine outdoors and welcoming small towns, so stakeholders must be stewards of the land and people the economy depends on.
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