Interesting read from the Denver Post about Colorado Mt. towns possibly becoming too busy in the summer season. Great time to look at real estate.....
PUBLISHED: September 17, 2016 at 11:00 pm | UPDATED: September 18, 2016 at 10:14 pm
Visitors to the Rocky Mountain National Park get a good view of the Forest Canyon area along Trail Ridge road September 10, 2016.
It was another banner summer in Colorado’s high country. Record sales tax revenues. Record lodging occupancy. Record traffic counts.
With annual summer tourism business in the mountains surging anywhere from 4 percent to 14 percent for the past several years, the breakneck pace raises the question: Is there such a thing as too busy?
Ask the marketing people who measure their tourism-growing success by the soaring tax harvests for their towns, and get the same answer: Heck, no — busy equals winning.
Ask locals who have seen summer crowding on their favorite trails and their restful offseasons dwindle from a few months to a few weeks, and hear the opposite response: Please turn off the tourist spigot. This community is about more than money.
As Colorado’s tourist-dependent communities clawed back from the recession, tourism boosters rallied with big events, festivals and attractions designed to bolster the summer months. Winter takes care of itself: If there’s snow, lodges are full with visitors who pay big dollars. Summer was the big opportunity. But now those communities are struggling to mitigate the impact of their warm-weather victories.
And those regional efforts to lessen the blow of record tourism in the mountains — focusing on transportation, employee housing and smarter marketing — accompany a growing chorus of local concern that the crowds are debasing the promise of rural respite with urban lines and traffic.
“My measurement on the street is that people — business owners and workers — were overwhelmed this summer,” said Hilary Cooper, a longtime Telluride resident who begins her term as San Miguel County commissioner in January. “It’s evident in so many ways. Businesses were unable to provide quality service. Workers are stressed out. There are public safety concerns when the drive-in traffic is constantly circling town looking for a parking place.”
It’s a fine balance, protecting natural appeal while hosting visitors whose hotel and restaurant bills support enhancements like affordable housing, recreation centers and bike trails. That balancing act works well in the winter, when the number of visitors is high but they are almost all corralled on a snowy mountain for most of the day. In summer, those same thousands of visitors are spread across valleys, pedaling trails, climbing mountains, fishing remote streams and strolling downtown. They are everywhere.
“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,” said Cooper, describing the bags of trash she’s collected on trails. “We don’t want to kick a gift horse in the mouth, but this summer just felt like too much. Maybe it’s time for a different discussion about what makes a successful mountain town.”
The population growth along the Front Range is fueling record traffic in the hills. So are the savvy tourism marketeers, trumpeting a May-to-October succession of summer events in all the resort valleys.
July was a record-setter across the state. Aspen and Snowmass saw the valley’s July occupancy rates top 88 percent for the first time. In Winter Park, July sales tax collections were up 57 percent over July 2015, marking a doubling of lodging tax collections in the last five years. Just about every Colorado tourist town saw highest-ever summer tax collections in July, with formerly dormant months like May, September and October growing the most quickly.
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.
In summer 2015, lodging occupancy in mountain resorts across the West reached 92 percent of the occupancy rates of winter. This summer, that gap will narrow even more.
“It’s not going to be possible to continue to grow at summer or winter at the same pace because we are at capacity,” said Ralf Garrison, whose DestiMetrics surveys lodging in 19 mountain destinations in six Western states.
Garrison’s data show summer 2016 will set another record for mountain lodging, a fifth consecutive high mark. Summer occupancy through July was up 7.4 percent over 2015, and revenues soared 14.3 percent. May and September saw the biggest surges in bookings.
DestiMetrics shows the summer lodging business in the mountains has grown 70 percent since 2007. During winter, when hoteliers regularly hang the “No Vacancy” sign, lodging business has grown 3 percent during the same period.
“Growth moving forward will require selective, strategic marketing during shoulder seasons. The peaks are taking care of themselves, so there’s not a need to market across the board,” Garrison said. “As the industry grows up and diversifies, we are having to get smarter. It’s not just about picking the low-hanging fruit.”
The summer deluge is not a challenge exclusive to Colorado’s ski resort towns.
Across the West, the National Park Service is seeing rocketing visitation during the agency’s heavily touted centennial celebration. After 2015, when national park visitation jumped 5 percent to a record 307 million in 2015 — including 16 percent increases at Grand Canyon and Yellowstone and 21 percent at Rocky Mountain National Park — this summer’s 100th anniversary party is expected to draw 315 million visits.
Rocky Mountain National Park last year leapfrogged Yosemite and Yellowstone to become the nation’s third-most-visited park with 4.15 million visitors. That means full parking lots, congested roads, crowded trails and long lines. The agency now is studying visitor caps at its busiest parks.
In July, Rocky Mountain National Park counted 913,000 visitors, up 6 percent from the same month in 2015. Through August, visitation to the park is 3.2 million, up 8 percent from last year. With attendance setting a record every month so far in 2016, the park is pacing toward yet another booming year with more than 4.4 million visitors, a roughly 1 million increase in a two-year period.
Is there a fear that rapid growth and so many people can mar the natural experience of a national park?
“That is a question we are working on right now,” Rocky Mountain National Park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said.
Sales tax revenue in Estes Park, at the eastern entrance to the park, is climbing, with collections through June setting a best-ever pace over, you guessed it, last year’s record harvest. On the other side of the park, Grand County is having its busiest summer ever. There’s not much complaining about crowds in Winter Park, which, until this summer, had lagged its resort comrades in the recovery from the recession.
“I think most people are excited about the seeing it this busy,” said Catherine Ross, the head of the Winter Park & Fraser Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Telluride town manager Greg Clifton, a member of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns board, remembers the postrecession focus for high-country tourist destinations was on events that could swell town with people and revive flagging tax revenues.
“Now it’s about how do we mitigate the impacts of these festivals and events and have a very good assessment of those impacts,” Clifton said. “To be clear, we are not looking at how to scale back or reduce. The conversation is how do we best handle this growth and mitigate its impact.”
Busy is relative, said Michael Martelon, whose Telluride Tourism Board years ago saw summer business eclipse winter in the box canyon valley.
Is busy about hotel occupancy? Well, Telluride and Mountain Village have had one month in the last 126 months when occupancy levels in the town and village’s more than 3,000 rooms were above 70 percent. And 70 percent is “just the beginning of success” for most destinations, Martelon said.
Telluride, with its every-weekend stream of summer festivals, handily hosts six times its population of roughly 2,400. The explosion of owners renting their homes to short-term visitors has reduced the supply of rental housing for workers. So, in a trend seen across the mountains, more employees are traveling from afar to get to work, clogging the highway into town and taking up valuable parking. Busy in Telluride is about cars.
The ever-bustling summers in Telluride haven’t been about the peaks as much as the rising valleys. There are no more breaks.
“Our saturation level is becoming a little different,” said Martelon, who offers remedies like a regional transportation system, employee parking and housing, and a strong airline program that brings visitors to town without cars.
Locals complaining about tourists, especially at the end of the busy season, is a time-honored tradition in ski towns. But this summer is different. There’s a fear that the asset — the community of workers as well as the forested hills themselves —is unable to handle the swelling throngs.
Aspen has already passed the “too busy” threshold, said Andy Stone, the former editor of the Aspen Times who recently penned a column in his old newspaper countering a note from Aspen Skiing Co. chief Mike Kaplan that urged residents to “thoughtfully manage demand” by, possibly, building more hotels instead of $10 million condos for thrice-a-year visitors. Kaplan argued that building hotels not condos centered around downtown would ease traffic and keep carless visitors in the commercial center.
Stone disagrees with the idea of adding more rooms. That would not just grow the valleys, but the busiest times as well, Stone said. He worries that the consistent crush of traffic and visitors could damage not just the environment that makes Aspen such a beautiful place but also the people who help make it a cultural destination.
“Our peaks are already too intense. It’s time to say enough is enough. We cannot grow any further, and we cannot allow any additional tourist accommodations,” Stone said. “I have yet to hear a convincing argument that we must grow or we will die. Some of the best and oldest resorts in the world have reached a steady, sustainable no-growth state. Part of what we are selling is that special experience, and it as it becomes less and less special, we are degrading the exact thing we are selling. If we damage our product, we are damaging ourselves.”
Aspen, like most of the state’s busiest resort towns, is making bold moves to ease the crush. Tourism cheerleaders are backing off the “Come to Aspen!” blast marketing during already overloaded times, like July. City leaders have spiked parking prices in the downtown core, hoping to deter employees from parking in front of shops. Employers have adjusted hours to get employees commuting during the slower hours of the day. A new, free Uber-type shuttle service moves visitors around town. The local chamber is courting groups that could fill midweek and offseason lulls.
“Busy in the summer is a good thing,” Aspen Chamber Resort Association president Debbie Braun told her members last month during an afternoon happy hour presentation at Buttermilk ski area. “It’s really important when it’s busy in Aspen that we embrace that.”
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 home projects in Aspen’s brief building window, Braun said.
Braun remembers the downturn. Revenues plummeted, forcing cuts to services. It was a hard couple of years with a cloudy horizon.
“Yes, it’s busy. But that busyness translates into energy and vitality,” Braun said. “It’s about pacing, and we have to work hard right now. Most of us have been around long enough to know that what goes up will come down.”
A sampling of municipal sales tax revenues this summer in the high country:
Estes Park: June 2016 up 10 percent over June15. YTD through June up 8 percent
Winter Park: July 2016 up 57 percent over June 2015. YTD through July up 40 percent
Durango: July 2016 up 7 percent over June 2015. YTD through July up 2 percent
Steamboat Springs: July 2016 up 7 percent over July 2015. YTD through July up 7 percent
Crested Butte: July 2016 up 14 percent over July 2015. YTD through July up 17 percent
Vail: July 2016 up 4 percent over July 2015. YTD through July up 4 percent
Aspen: July 2016 up 7 percent over July 2015. YTD through July up 5 percent
Telluride: June 2016 up 2 percent over June 2015. YTD through June up 36 percent
Mountain Village: June 2016 up 14 percent over June 2015. YTD through June up 4 percent
Breckenridge: June 2016 up 5 percent over June 2015. YTD through June up 9 percent