For many years, Colorado cities and towns have promoted their qualities to attract visitors. This is becoming exceedingly less necessary as local establishments struggle to keep pace with the demand, exacerbated by the ongoing shortage of service workers. In late March, the governor signed into law House Bill 22-1117, allowing counties to spend lodging tax dollars on affordable housing initiatives, and not just advertising for tourism.
Although the bill won’t affect counties that don’t collect lodging taxes, including Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin, it stands as evidence for the greater trend. The state’s population continues to grow, counting 774,518 new residents between 2010 and 2020, and visitation remains high. In response, organizations that promote tourism are adapting.
“You can see a shift in terminology, from marketing to management,” said Andrea Stewart, executive director of the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce. The chamber also oversees Carbondale Tourism, funded by a 2% lodging tax collected by the town.
Carbondale Tourism recently hosted a visioning and rebranding workshop with Rainy Day Designs. “Tourism has changed so much over the past two years,” said Stewart. Specifically, “even locals are being tourists in their own backyard,” discovering new places close to home during the pandemic.
Stewart suggested that the term “tourism,” which has come to bear negative connotations, can also encompass a kind of stewardship. She gave the often-cited example of dog poop baggies, notorious for littering trails. “It’s such a relatable experience, and an example of taking ‘us versus them’ out of the issue and addressing the issue as tourists and locals alike.”
Five tourism-promoting organizations in the Valley have rallied around this idea of “responsible visitation” to form the Roaring Fork Valley Destination Alliance. The alliance partners with the Colorado Tourism Office and is funded by a CARES Act Recovery Assistance grant. It includes Aspen Chamber Resort Association, Snowmass Tourism, Basalt Chamber of Commerce, Carbondale Tourism and Visit Glenwood Springs, and it is the first of its kind in Colorado.
In addition to promoting thoughtful trail etiquette and leave-no-trace practices, the alliance seeks to develop an integrated framework for Valley-wide crisis communications strategies. Stewart gave the example of a Glenwood Canyon closure. Not only will would-be tourists be assured they are welcome when possible, outsiders stranded in the Valley will be encouraged to peruse stores and visit a local restaurant. More seriously, in the incidence of a fire, visitors will be alerted to evacuation protocol and resources.
“It’s about dealing with how to communicate with visitors during times of crisis,” explained Sarah-Jane Johnson, spokesperson for the alliance. “So whatever crisis is coming, we’re operating hand-in-hand to put the right message out there.”
Additionally, Carbondale Tourism was awarded a $14,000 grant to help develop agritourism in the Valley. According to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, the number of Colorado farms generating income from agritourism and recreational services grew by nearly 200 between 2012 and 2017. Income per farm, meanwhile, nearly doubled.
What is agritourism? One component of the grant includes funding to facilitate conversations among local farmers and ranchers, bringing in outside expertise to help them develop programs and infrastructure for welcoming curious visitors.
Additionally, a revamped Roaring Fork + Farm Map will be launching this spring. The map was initially created thanks to a program development grant received previous to the pandemic. It was set to print in March 2020 and resulted far less widespread than initially intended.
Now, the local farms and foods map, recognized by the United Nations International Mountains Day as “an exemplary sustainable tourism project” in 2021, will re-launch this spring with more of a Valley-wide focus.
“Tourism is a really important part of our way of life in Western Colorado,” said Johnson, championing the benefits to local economies. Nonetheless, “industry-wide, all tourism management organizations are looking at what their role is to manage and mitigate the impacts of tourism and protect quality of life for host communities.”