By Colleen Dalton
In July 2021, Visit Truckee-Tahoe contributed to Moonshine Ink with an article, Flipping the Tourism Model, that described a worldwide paradigm shift as tourism organizations began to lean away from marketing and promotion (only) and toward stewardship, destination management, and climate change planning.
Since then, the ENVISION TAHOE 2022 survey results by Tahoe Prosperity, a nonprofit examining economic options for Lake Tahoe, show that 63% of local residents say that things in Tahoe are on the wrong track, while 75% count the lake and natural beauty as the highest-ranking factors that make Tahoe a great place to live. This data implies that locals support a major re-balancing of priorities for the four regional Destination Marketing and Management Organizations, which include Visit Truckee-Tahoe, North Lake Tahoe Resort Association, Incline Village Crystal Bay Visitors Bureau, and Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority of South Lake — from budget allocations, to talent/staffing, branding, mission, and vision.
While all of that is certainly happening at the pace and timing that is best for each entity, the four tourism organizations have also united and come together in 2022 to do the hard work of a community and stakeholder-driven “Lake Tahoe Destination Stewardship Plan,” guided by the consultant group, CREST. Congruently, Visit Truckee-Tahoe embarked upon a “Truckee Destination Stewardship Plan,” hiring the consultant team FutureIQ.
Interestingly, the last time Lake Tahoe Destination Marketing Organizations (M for “management” did not exist then, nor did Visit Truckee-Tahoe) routinely came together was for the sole purpose of driving more visitors to Tahoe, and this was about five years ago. In those years, the major ski areas and DMOs pooled their dollars and marketing efforts into branding the region as an international ski destination. Known as “Ski Lake Tahoe,” the organization disbanded sometime around 2016/17. An unexpected consequence was the absence of a structured forum for DMO peer-to-peer communication and collaboration around a common purpose, specifically and only about tourism in the Tahoe/Truckee region.
Fast forward to Covid-19, and you’ve never seen a faster hustle to get the band back together with “more cowbell” #snl provided by Visit Truckee-Tahoe, plus other players including nonprofits and management organizations (i.e. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the Tahoe Fund, the U.S. Forest Service, etc.) joining the newly dubbed DMMOs in a structured process to develop Stewardship Plans. In addition, soon leadership at high-tourism-volume entities (i.e. ski areas, large hotels, casinos) will be invited to key discussions. Important other vested groups such as the Washoe people, social services/underserved, local recreation businesses, conservation entities and many more will also be consulted.
Getting to Lake Tahoe and Truckee Destination Stewardship Plans will also require a high degree of broad citizen feedback in the upcoming months, giving credence to “the people’s plan.” The first series of public workshops for Lake Tahoe including Truckee, was completed in May. Another round is scheduled for fall 2022. Visit Truckee-Tahoe opted to engage local citizens toward early winter 2023, while prioritizing improvements in programs piloted in 2021, such as Sustainable Truckee Ambassadors.
All of this may sound Pollyanna, but the truth is this work is something the DMMOs have never done before, and we can’t do it alone — this requires our entire region to help. It is hard, bumpy, and will require consensus amongst some leaders in the Tahoe Basin and Truckee who may have never even met before, or been in each other’s shoes. They will be convening at a scale and frequency that boggles the mind. Ask me about the pros and cons of vault versus topper toilets, poop pumping frequency, and trash bin mechanics!
One of the greatest challenges for both the Tahoe and Truckee efforts is understanding increased outdoor recreation usage impacts — if peak visitation volumes that we saw in the past two years are a new normal, or if macro and micro-economic changes are in the winds ahead.
Let’s have a look at how we got to summer 2022. While short-term-rentals increased lodging inventory above hotel rooms in the past decade, local governments reaped in record-breaking transient occupancy and sales tax revenue in an era when other income sources (i.e. federal and state) were flat or declining. Today, local government operating costs continue to increase (i.e. California Public Employee Retirement System) while inflation erodes buying power. Yes, we now have caps on short-term-rentals from south to north lake and Truckee, but keep in mind that the population of California increased from 30 million in 1990 to 40 million in 2021, ballooning the Tahoe/Truckee drive/day visitor, in addition to overnight guests. Then, Covid-19 increased primary, year-round residency for homeowners and inspired pent-up quarantineers to get outside.
New normal, or not, solutions need money and tourism in this region’s economic engine, at least for now. And, isn’t spending time outdoors in nature a basic human right no matter where you are from, your age, gender identity, body size, ability, ethnicity, or socio-economic status? As the ENVISION TAHOE survey says, Lake Tahoe is a great place to live because of its natural beauty. And, a great place to visit.
Let’s do a quick check-in about the differences and similarities between the Lake Tahoe Stewardship Plan and the Truckee Stewardship Plan. While not geographically located “in” the Tahoe Basin, but certainly sharing the same connected forest, watershed, and ecosystem, Truckee has the unique benefit of cohesion around one DMMO, one local municipality, and one county (Visit Truckee-Tahoe, Town of Truckee, and Nevada County) plus small areas of Placer County on Donner Summit. The Lake Tahoe plan convenes four DMMOs, two states, and five counties connected to the lake and a sixth, Nevada County. Strategy for the plan will be derived from input across all jurisdictions, from one-on-one interviews, to focus groups, and broad citizen input.
While the need for a Lake Tahoe Stewardship Plan was seeded during Covid-19 workshops in February 2021, Visit Truckee-Tahoe formed and began the foundational work for a Truckee Destination Stewardship Plan in 2020. Visit Truckee-Tahoe started by funding a pre-audit for Truckee, using 47 sustainability indicators recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council as a framework. This pre-audit measured how Truckee was doing in four focus areas: economic (tourism), planning/transportation, culture and community well-being, and environment/climate. Since receiving results of the pre-audit, Visit Truckee-Tahoe has been working on how to do a better job with solutions branded as the “Sustainable Truckee” initiative. Nearly a dozen VIP partnerships were developed to collaborate and help fund new programs ranging from an adaptive, all-inclusive mountain bike trail to micro-transit, trail ambassadors, and free bike valet for events. Utilized by Colorado’s Vail, Breckenridge, and Jackson Hole, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council framework also rolls up to the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, ranging from affordable clean energy to reducing inequalities, and increasing good health and well-being.
Thus, we have two “destination stewardship plans” for Lake Tahoe and Truckee in the works with similar high-level goals of solving increased outdoor usage challenges in order to protect and preserve our greatest assets: natural beauty, scenic landscape, and Lake Tahoe. And, importantly, quality of life for residents. Like other tourism towns across the U.S. on this journey, every approach has a different scope, consultant, boundary, timeline, speed, and what I like to affectionately call “cast of characters.” Every situation is different. No one way is “the right way.” We are in this together.
I am very hopeful given the positive feedback received from Tahoe/Truckee communities so far. We are all challenged with how to balance protecting a place with a thriving tourism economy to help fund public, private, and nonprofit organizations whose core competency are the solutions we need, from transit to toilets. With two stewardship plans in the works, and a great focus on sustainable principles, practices, inclusiveness, engagement, and listening, the only way through is together as a Tahoe/Truckee region.
Learn more about the Truckee Stewardship Plan, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals at visittruckeetahoe.com/stewardship. Learn more the Lake Tahoe Stewardship Plan at stewardshiptahoe.org.