The realization often comes with speechlessness.
Patty Baird, owner of the Cedar House Sport Hotel in Truckee, has posed a question to fellow business owners in the Truckee/North Tahoe region: “What do we sell?”
It’s not a rhetorical question, yet those Baird asks often don’t have a response. So, she ends up providing one: “Our product is an experience. We essentially sell a product we don’t own.”
The Tahoe product includes a few things: the lake, of course; snowy mountains; the smell of pine trees; views of Mother Nature from peaks and valleys of the Sierra Nevada; and adventure in hundreds of forms … a versatile mountain experience. And for a long time, the sale of this product was done so by destination marketing organizations (DMOs), businesses, and jurisdictions with a focus on the people visiting.
“The traditional DMO model … was heads in beds, heads in beds, heads in beds,” said Andy Chapman, president and CEO of the Incline Village Crystal Bay Visitors Bureau. “Driving volume. It was all about the volume side of the equation, and volume as it related to heads in beds.”
It was about volume and it was about catering to the tourists. In 2010, 42% of Tahoe’s $4.7 billion economy touched tourism in some way, according to the Tahoe Prosperity Center. By 2018, what had become a $5.1 billion economy was now 62% reliant upon tourism. Transient Occupancy Tax income, collected from short-term guests, also shows the dramatic increase in tourism. For example, in 2008, Placer County collected from Tahoe $8 million in TOT. In 2012 that number jumped to $12 million. In the big winters of 2015/16 and 2016/17, it skyrocketed to $18 million. By 2018/19, the number reached $21 million.
And with the money have come its payers’ impacts, like gridlocked traffic, environmental damage, and an exhausted local community. In recent years, the concept of it all being too much, dubbed overtourism, has been establishing itself into communities — in places like Venice; Barcelona; Sedona, Arizona; Big Sur; and Truckee/North Tahoe. In 2019, even Visit California, traditionally gung-ho about any and all tourism, was bringing up the negative impacts of tourists in profusion.
And then in 2020, Covid-19 came in. Like a wrecking ball.
People gravitated to Tahoe en masse, some permanently. The region’s appealing great outdoors seemed to be at the top of everyone’s to-do list within a four-hour radius. Tahoe’s slant toward ever-expanding tourism (again, consider TOT income) came to a screeching halt as residents fumed, political leaders pleaded, and dumpsters overflowed. Organizations entrenched in the “heads in beds” philosophy were being blamed for spreading the coronavirus, degrading the environment, and elbowing out longtime locals.
It was a brutal form of Darwinism, Covid’s hands around Tahoe’s neck, but the ugliness has yielded positive change in how the region is envisioned. Tourism bureaus in particular have pivoted from driving volume with a come-what-may attitude to seeking out responsible visitors, paying attention to the local communities, and doing so hand-in-hand.
The name of the new game is sustainable tourism with a collaborative flair.
“If we don’t take care of what we’re selling, we’re not going to have anything to sell,” Baird told Moonshine Ink. “That’s really the bottom line. Tourism has to pivot to this and understand, otherwise we’re going to destroy the product that we are essentially selling.”
It takes three to tango
Sustainable tourism in a perfect world walks a delicate line: The concept demands that a destination and its visitors balance the economic, social, and environmental needs of a place.
Kristin York, vice president of the Sierra Business Council, described the relationship between these three areas as being nested within one another: the economy sits within the community, which resides in the environment.
“If we look at it from that perspective,” she said, “the care of our surroundings and our nature provides everything — the air, the water, the food we eat — for the community, and then us as stewards of the environment … make the money that keeps the economy going.”
The care, though, has fallen short. York believes there is a regional carrying capacity, and that right now the area’s assets, both environmental and manmade, are not up to the task for the amount of people coming to visit.
“You can look at our air quality on a particular day, you can look at sediment into the lake in peak periods, the traffic, our infrastructure,” she said. “There’s the natural carrying capacity, but our infrastructure carrying capacity is also not designed for that level of people.”
Especially since nearly everyone arrives in cars, which is what community advocate and principal at PR Design and Engineering Andrew Ryan says has been the focus of local infrastructure for the past 40 years.
Such traffic results in rising auto emissions that negatively affect air quality, increase greenhouse gases, and even play a hand in algae blooms in the lake — environmental impacts in addition to safety concerns.
“Our pendulum in terms of community planning has swung so far that all of our public spaces are dominated by roadways,” said the 23-year Kings Beach resident. “Very few of our public spaces are dominated by plaza and hangout spots or bike trails.”
Agencies and organizations are increasingly driving tourism money toward taking care of the local community and environment. For example, in early March, Placer County’s board of supervisors approved the North Lake Tahoe Tourism Business Improvement District, which the NLTRA will oversee. Included in the plan, set to go in place this July, is a shift of TOT monies to be earmarked for addressing workforce housing and transportation issues. The point: Take care of the place and the place will take care of you.
Ryan envisions a complete rehaul of Tahoe’s entire infrastructure focus, encouraging more walkability and stay-ability — thus helping to protect the environment.
“[Tahoe’s] business model in the summertime is fill up your car at Costco gas, fill up your cooler at Walmart, drive to Kings Beach, park on a sidewalk for free, go to the state beach for free all day, have a wonderful time, and then leave all your trash on the way out next to a dumpster,” he said. “The model should be, come to North Lake Tahoe and have a unique experience that is essentially car-free.”
Animosity between locals and visitors is part and parcel for tourism destinations and Tahoe is no exception, with the divisiveness especially sharp during Covid. Every representative from tourism agencies that Moonshine interviewed pointed out this must be remedied. They say Tahoe’s pivot to sustainable tourism demands both an inward (community) and outward (visitor) change.
First, a rethinking of who’s visiting.
Baird, who’s also vice chair of the Visit Truckee-Tahoe board, shared a comment she heard often last year, that visitors to Tahoe didn’t respect the locals. “We have to be able to develop respect that is mutually extended between host and guest,” she said. “… People do want to contribute; it’s just that we’ve never given them the chance. We always categorize — oh, they’re just tourists.”
Local destination marketing organizations are participating in the recategorization by moving marketing dollars from promotion to education. (An ideal role for the industry, as it’s currently undergoing a recategorization, from DMOs to DMMOs — destination management and marketing organizations.)
“[A] big shift we’re doing this summer is putting some of the paid dollars, the paid advertising that we would’ve gone out of market with, and putting that in-market,” explained Liz Bowling, director of communications and media relations at the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association. “We’re saying to visitors that are here … Hey, do you know what respecting the environment looks like? Do you know how to become a steward of Lake Tahoe? If you’re interested in voluntourism opportunities, here’s how you do that.”
In this vein, on Earth Day the NLTRA released a traveler responsibility pledge encouraging Tahoe visitors to travel with awareness of their impacts on nature and the local communities. A series of videos and other marketing materials have been distributed to visitor hot spots around the Basin to spread the word.
The pledge serves as an educational and marketing outreach for the region — not that Tahoe necessarily needs to spread the word about what it offers.
“Just because we stopped marketing [last summer] didn’t mean people stopped coming,” Chapman echoed. “They were still going to come, so what content did we have, what’s the message that we have that we can help push that out? That was doing those responsible travel videos, getting the pledge put together.”
In addition to better educating Tahoe’s visitors, the region’s tourism agencies aim to better communicate with those who live here.
Tahoe’s DMOs haven’t always been as introspective as local communities might prefer. Chapman admitted this openly, that his job has been to bring people to town, to feed the tourism engine. “We’ve never done a good job, or at least an adequate job, in telling local communities what it is we do and what it is we do not do,” he said.
The visitors bureau that Chapman helms just created a new community engagement manager position, meant to help the organization better gauge residents’ moods in Incline Village and Crystal Bay.
Focusing inwardly, on the community, stems from a notion dawning on the industry: A great place to live and work begets a great place to visit. The NLTRA says it recognizes this.
“I think one of the bigger shifts that we really need to move into now as a result of things we’ve been putting out and doing is really getting community buy-in,” Bowling said. “Without that, we’re going to continue to see this divisiveness, and that doesn’t serve anybody.”
All for one
If there’s one group that knows how to practice collaboration, it’s the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. That’s because to operate successfully across state lines, the agency has to work in accord with others around the Basin; partnership is in its DNA.
That’s one reason the TRPA was chosen alongside the U.S. Forest Service to co-lead the area’s sustainable recreation working group in 2017, formed under the umbrella of the Tahoe Interagency Executives steering committee. The working group set out to promote high-quality recreation experiences in the outdoors while preserving Tahoe’s natural resources.
But, as Jeff Cowen, public information officer for the TRPA, said, “[The group] wasn’t going anywhere fast.”
That is, until the pandemic. Then, the sustainable recreation working group became an incident command structure, dealing with the individual blows of closed parking lots and staggered street parking, overcrowded beaches and boat ramps, and a push into the unmanaged regions of the Basin.
Weekly calls were happening with representatives from the California Tahoe Conservancy, California and Nevada state parks, the Forest Service, Tahoe City Public Utility District, Truckee Town Council, healthcare providers, law enforcement agencies, and DMMOs — all groups that needed to be in the room to discuss better recreation management.
Even the Reno Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority had a presence, and readily complied when asked by group members to take down the billboards in Reno that promoted visiting Tahoe.
The working group is now taking a solid form and is currently establishing a charter, its aim being to establish coordinated management actions across the Basin so that groups involved are implementing the same practices.
“One of the big lessons we hope everyone in the Basin and all of our regional recreation partners learned last year was that coordinated response is critical,” Cowen said. “If one organization makes a decision, it impacts everyone else in the region.”
That lesson wasn’t restricted to the Basin. On March 31 this year, Nevada County Supervisor Hardy Bullock convened a meeting of the minds through his new group, Convene, Champion, and Catalyze, built to address peak visitation impacts around Truckee.
“I talked to a lot of people before I convened the Triple C group on the economic effect of the group,” Bullock said. “It’s not designed to cool the economy, it’s not designed to throttle our economy. It’s designed to … have responsible tourism and visitation.”
The group meets once a month for an hour and a half, and tangible successes have already come out of the collaboration. Out of the second meeting came the idea of enhancing parking citation amounts, from around $35 to well over $100 to dissuade casual drivers who don’t mind paying small amounts. There’s also the creation of the STORC, Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Collaborative, invested in by Nevada County, Town of Truckee, Truckee Donner Land Trust, Truckee Tahoe Airport District, and Visit Truckee-Tahoe.
“We hired a consultant to basically immediately start trying to wrap their arms around sustainable outdoor recreation,” Bullock said of the STORC. “And they went out from the CCC, they took CCC members, but they also went wider and got people from out in the community who care about outdoor sustainable recreation and they are now doing their own thing. That’s one deliverable that right off the bat we already got going.”
STORC’s first meeting in late May was entirely focused on trash.
The CCC is separate from, but aligned with, another nearby collaborative, Sustainable Truckee — an initiative born out of Visit Truckee-Tahoe, and integrating several programs or projects in the name of sustainability, including the Truckee Trail Host Ambassador Program, Truckee Trailhead Signage Program, the aforementioned STORC, and a Truckee outdoor recreation summer map.
“What’s unfolding right now is a very urgent, fast-moving program development need in collaboration with an amazing amount of partners that we just wouldn’t have done two years ago,” said Colleen Dalton, CEO of Visit Truckee-Tahoe. “Now we’re on a first-name basis, have relationships, running meetings with the U.S. Forest Service, Truckee Trails Foundation, Take Care Tahoe, [and] Truckee Donner Land Trust. That was not our MO years ago, it was promote, promote; now it’s collaborate, partner.”
Visit Truckee-Tahoe is also in the early stages of seeking certification through the Global Sustainable Tourism Council to become a globally recognized sustainable destination. Success would mean joining other U.S. mountain communities like Breckenridge and Vail in Colorado, and Jackson, Wyoming. The Sustainable Truckee initiative moves forward projects that will satisfy certification criteria, and Dalton said VTT hopes to begin the formal application process in June 2022.
Back to business as usual?
These new mindsets and collaborations are the first steps in Tahoe’s journey toward a new normal. Masks and stay-at-home orders aside, “That desire to come to Tahoe’s not going anywhere,” said Heidi Hill Drum, CEO of the Tahoe Prosperity Center. “… Having a resilient economy is not just a pandemic response; it’s something we need to be thinking of no matter what our future.”
It’s a response that Tahoe didn’t have a decade ago coming out of the Great Recession. Hill Drum recalled that then, as the nation climbed out of the financial crisis, Tahoe responded with joy that people were traveling again, paying for meals and passes at ski resorts, and the like. All hats were hung on tourism, and the region’s reliance on the industry became lopsided. From 2010 to 2018, the regional economy became more than 60% based on visitors, Hill Drum said, and when you factor in that the economy didn’t in fact grow in that time, the blossoming percentage becomes even more troubling.
Economically, Hill Drum said she hopes the pandemic has served as the region’s red flag warning.
“Let’s not miss this sad and terrible thing that happened, and look at it as an opportunity to do better … ” she said. “I have hope that if we come together around a regional economic strategy, that we can then use that to leverage the federal dollars that are coming to the communities around the lake and actually put together some implementation efforts that will make a difference in the long run.”
Her concern, she added, is that communities will instead utilize the one-time federal money to focus on their individual areas — Placer County will focus on Placer; South Lake on South Lake, etc. — when in fact, citizens who may live in one district often work in another. And the economy is also more fluid than jurisdictional boundaries. A collaborative response is what’s needed.
“By helping the region, we help everyone,” Hill Drum said.
Cedar House’s Baird is operating from a similar conviction.
“We have to acknowledge that there are going to be some corrections, some changes, and some of those changes are not going to be popular because it’s really easy to just jump back into that business-as-usual groove,” she said. “It’s like muscle memory.”
Covid-19, she continued, accelerated the need for sustainable tourism, and while Tahoe clearly didn’t suffer from a drought of tourists in 2020, a recovery still needs to happen.
“When there’s concern about economic recovery, it’s much easier to go back to trying to do what you know how to do than try to make this change,” Baird said. “… It’s even more imperative that we really need to start pushing this forward and find solutions, and stop just talking about it.”
~ Mayumi Elegado contributed to this story.