BY COLLEEN DALTON | Moonshine Ink

With issues of over-tourism, visitor-caused traffic, pollution, crowding, and the recent discovery of microplastics in Lake Tahoe, sustainable tourism has been on our minds for a long time. Destination management and sustainable tourism strategies came into play for the Truckee Chamber/Visit Truckee during the pandemic much sooner than planned, and continue to be a primary focus today.

When COVID hit, California was the first state to formally engage with the CDC, federal government, and airlines on the repatriation of flights from overseas, primarily China. Tracking with the state, Visit Truckee monitored the pandemic with growing concern by late January.

Two weeks later, on Feb. 11, Visit  California held its annual conference focused on sustainable travel and destination stewardship programs and case studies. This was the first formal industry event in response to over-tourism at the state level, but the issue had begun years ago in rural towns, especially in peak season for Truckee, North and South Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes, and Monterey.

As the pandemic progressed, on March 17, Visit Truckee was the first mountain town chamber in California to issue a press release titled Now is Not the Time to Visit Truckee, resulting in coverage in the L.A. Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Sacramento Bee, in addition to local publications like this one. Truckee.com, e-newsletters, and social media shared these tough love messages for three long months. We used all of our tools and resources to do a 180 from “Visit Truckee; enjoy our shops, restaurants and lodging” to “see you on the other side,” not knowing when that would ever be.

Truckee became a ghost town.

While that was a complete shock to our DNA, Visit Truckee was prepared for COVID-19 because we had already started to support California’s new Responsible Travel Code. We made a shift in responsible tourism communication with articles, photos, and videos on themes such as Keep Truckee Green.

The about-face needed to bring tourism to a grinding halt brought on by the virus became our first major move toward visitor communication focusing on sustainable travel, in this case to keep our communities safe. Visit Truckee rebooted a “destination marketing factory” into the visitor crisis communication needed to stop a lethal disease at our community’s doorstep.

The problems that caused us to delve into more sustainable tourism schemes for the long term persist in the pandemic. Many would say we’re in the middle of over-tourism right now with pent-up demand for travel from visitors who have no interest in flying. Visit Truckee continues to retool quickly for the crisis at hand, watching Nevada County’s positivity rate and preparing to mitigate by understanding the reasons why.

We are, at press time, hyper-focused on mandatory mask usage by creating photos, videos, articles, and artwork that communicate “mask up” and that travel to Truckee is not a vacation from the virus. Since the closure of tourism in March, we learned that creative messages and positive reinforcement works and travelers come back, yet it will take collaboration and education to keep COVID at bay. Always point travelers to truckee.com/responsibletravel.

Yet we knew it even before COVID: Peak season tourism as we know it in Truckee is not sustainable. The sunset for funding Visit Truckee was looming for October 2020. We knew that restructuring Visit Truckee in order to keep this community as an authentic mountain town with a vibrant business sector was the only path forward.

Fortunately, the mechanism to make that change is the Truckee Tourism Business Improvement District which was formed with the help of our Chamber of Commerce in 2015.

Since then, TTBID has been guided by a Management District Plan that spells out how tourism funding, generated by a TTBID fee on room nights, is spent. In the past five years, a committee in the chamber  has steered spending decisions that helped drive a $159 million tourism economy and generated over 1,400 jobs.

In 2019, the TTBID Committee began to strategize how a new MDP for the years 2020 to 2025 could formalize a plan for sustainable tourism and destination stewardship.

The resulting path forward for TTBID will be the first in California to have a formal mechanism to address sustainable tourism.

With input from the Town of Truckee and citizens via quality of life polls, the final version of the 2020 to 2025 MDP was poised to reflect this historic change even weeks before the coronavirus pandemic made landfall in California with a new section about destination management and sustainable visitor communications.

As part of the new focus, Visit Truckee will now be recognized as a 501 (c)(6) destination marketing and management organization.

Visit Truckee/Truckee Chamber has obtained the 50% needed signatures for TTBID renewal. A public notice and public hearing will now follow, with the final step of getting the Town of Truckee’s blessings. To learn more, visit truckee.com/ttbid-renewal.

~ Colleen Dalton is the director of tourism and economic programs for Truckee Chamber/Visit Truckee.