In 2020, the global pandemic wreaked havoc on the international travel industry. In the American West, the crowds kept coming.
BY BRIGID MANDER
The impact of global tourism was never as dramatically evident as in early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic quashed human activity worldwide. Crowded, bustling travel hotspots the world over were suddenly silenced, contracted to only local residents. In places like national parks and forests, oceans and bays, the local wildlife, no doubt bewildered but surely pleased, had their ecosystems to themselves.
Perhaps no image of overcrowded beaches, road-blocking moose-jams, or selfie sticks wielded like periscopes over sardine-can crowds cut into the realities of high-volume tourism hot spots like the new images of hollowed-out-for-visitor-consumption, former community cores sitting quiet and still.
The onset of COVID-19 and the subsequent halt in travel flayed open the complex paradox between culture, environment and residents, and the skyrocketing levels of modern tourism. Despite economic pain, many denizens of popular places breathed in relief. From Amsterdam to New Zealand, they expressed widespread hope that rather than rushing back to the crush of business as usual, the pandemic could be a golden opportunity to correct mistakes, reclaim residential spaces and city centers from visitors, and remake the travel industry into an economically, culturally and ecologically healthier resource.
Many of those places remain quiet, their governments and organizations seizing the chance to regain control and management of tourism. But in the American West, by July, it was different. Road warriors from New York to L.A. and everywhere in between, desperate for a change of scenery, beelined for the only thing open: outdoor recreation in vast federal and state public lands, and their gateway communities.
“We need to start defining tourism not as sustainable, but in terms of what is it sustaining? Mayors, as well as park managers, have seldom had any vision of what the tourism was supposed to accomplish.”
Tourism has long been viewed as an easy avenue to profits and provided significant economic hope for depressed or nascent economies. After all, what’s the harm in making some money by inviting people to a beautiful place, selling souvenir trinkets, guiding a few trips and proudly sharing your beloved home and culture?
This is the method through which entire countries have been lifted from dire poverty, downtrodden economies salvaged, citizens’ lives improved, and visitor viewpoints enriched simply by showcasing natural beauty and cultural assets. In other cases, it provides critical protections for those prized assets, such as in Africa, where wildlife tourism dollars have made animals much more valuable alive than dead, funded education of locals, and created jobs for wardens and guides to protect these creatures from poachers and preserve whole ecosystems.
But many places, for too long, have been afraid to acknowledge and respond to the evidence that, at some stage, tourism passes a tipping point after which it begins to do significant harm: to social fabric, by creating economic monocultures, by undermining residential life, by contributing to both overconsumption and climate change. In 2016, the issue got a name: overtourism, referring to unsustainable numbers of tourists and ensuing negative impacts on the destination.
While widespread examination of these issues is long overdue, we should recognize the good that tourism can bring, but also that it needs to be looked at, planned for and managed like a renewable resource by municipalities, governments and land managers.
It remains to be seen whether the global shutdown, having exposed for many places
just how much vibrancy and economic space has been given over to a devastating cycle of more and more tourism, will lead to lasting change. As a response to overtourism before the shutdown, many destinations began to address the issues, albeit somewhat feebly, by calling for “sustainable tourism” with only vague parameters of what that might entail.
Steve McCool, professor emeritus at the University of Montana, says we need to rethink the concept of sustainable tourism. McCool, who has studied society, conservation and nature- based tourism for over fifty years, working closely with national park managers in the U.S. and around the world, suggests this involves changing the question from the well-being and amenities of visitors to that of the destination itself.
“We need to start defining tourism not as sustainable, but in terms of what is it sustaining? Mayors, as well as park managers, have seldom had any vision of what the tourism was supposed to accomplish,” he said.
Across the American West, however, including here in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the opportunity for fixes conceived in the lull of the pandemic was brief. The onslaught of visitors did, luckily, save small towns with economies reliant on the monoculture of tourism. The shutdowns nonetheless still can provide positive, thoughtful scrutiny about how to better balance visitation, community and natural resources for the long term, according to Samantha Bray, managing director at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsible Travel, aka CREST.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain
For most of human history, leisure travel did not exist. Humans moved across the landscape for food and survival, then exploration and acquisition of wealth and power. Modern travel for personal enrichment as we know it began around the 17th century, when aristocratic young men took long journeys to explore Europe’s great cultural centers in the culmination of their classical education.
Travel today looks nothing like that for the vast majority of people. Few have the opportunity to take monthslong, immersive enrichment trips, but understandably individuals still want to experience the world. Cheap, fast travel options make it possible. Content on things to see and do “before you die” could fill stores; bucket lists abound, and getting a photo of the travel object seems, increasingly, to supersede the experience itself. Unfortunately, much of the budget and group travel precludes any chance of cultural interaction, or exchange for mutual tolerance and respect and enlightening education.
Throwing fuel on the fire, social media has become almost a reason in itself to travel: posting photos, building personal brands, and inspiring others to … come and take their own photos. “The Instagrammification of destinations has created unrealistic expectations for people, and it’s definitely a problem that has contributed to overtourism,” says CREST’s Bray.
Travel writer Henry Wismayer, like many writers in the field, posits hard questions for himself in promoting travel via traditional media, when it’s become so hard on certain communities and an increasingly culpable player in climate change. Yet he notes, and rightly so, that traditional media’s negative effects wither in the face of the magnified impacts of social media, driving a “hyper-consumerist, bucket-list- driven travel.”
If simply being in a place—rushing in, taking photos, rushing onto the next—has become all there is to travel, we as a species might question why we endeavor to travel at all. “We don’t want tourism to be just for the elite, but mass tourism is not democratic either,” said Germann Molz. “Just being in a place doesn’t mean you’re getting the benefit of the place.”
But if the travail of Venice is any lesson for others, brief, low-quality and high-impact experiences are no deterrent.
The Instagrammification of destinations has created unrealistic expectations for people, and it’s definitely a problem that has contributed to overtourism.
C loaked in centuries of rich history, trade, architecture, the arts, science and Renaissance mystique, it took modern tourism to turn Venice into a nearly empty shell of itself. The world has heedlessly watched Venice’s prolonged death as a living city as it buckles under unmanaged tourism in a decades-long, socioeconomic disaster. A huge amount of revenue made on Venice flows away to foreign tour companies, cruise lines and chain hotels. Venetians have fled en masse citing declining quality of life and rising costs of living, from a post-WWII population of 170,000 to around 50,000 today.
While tourism was inarguably beneficial up to a point, Venetians didn’t know how to determine what that point was, nor do most destinations suffering from unfettered tourism. And despite the transumanza experience, visitation increases every year; from 5 million people in 1988, pre-pandemic projections for 2025 were at 40 million.
In light of examples like these, it’s no wonder up-and-coming destinations are getting the jitters, like the little-known Italian city of Matera. The UN named it the European Capital of Culture for 2019, which prompted the mayor of the Basilicata region community to complain to The New York Times that his town didn’t want to be “occupied by tourists” and that too many visitors would deplete its ancient soul.
An interesting case in India saw Jibhi, a tiny, spectacular hamlet in the Himalaya recently exposed to the world via Instagram. Once outed, locals decided to limit guests, and these few would learn and adhere to Jibhi’s values, rather than the other way around. In order to dull the appeal to tourists not interested in their quiet culture, they forbade tourist parties and public smoking, alcohol, and loud noise.
Plastics are highly discouraged in the Himachal Pradesh region, and guest house managers present visitors with any plastic trash they generate to take back out with them. The villagers developed their code of conduct to remind tourists they chose Jibhi because it is pristine, and visitors were firmly expected to help keep it that way.
Jibhi, of course, is a unique case that would be hard to replicate in most places, but it’s an optimistic lesson from a tiny, isolated village. It’s possible to make some money from tourism, while prioritizing the health and values of community and the surrounding natural world instead of focusing on increasing profits.
Extracting a place from the clutches of powerful tourism interests is hard, as evidenced by 2,000-year old Barcelona, Spain, population 1.6 million. According to data, 32 million annual tourists spend 22 million euros ($25.6 million USD) every day. Tourism accounts for 1 in 12 jobs.
On the other hand, proliferating low-wage tourism jobs and businesses undermine economic diversity, and much of that revenue flows to outside investors, a set of conditions common with tourism- driven economies.
Under increasing anti-mass tourism public pressure, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau recently banned new hotels, cracked down on home-sharing platforms, and taxed and limited day-trippers, among other measures. The goal of the reforms is not to extinguish tourism, but to regain some control and balance.
“COVID has really thrown gasoline on the tourism problems … because of Wyoming state law, we are more dependent on tourism and sales tax than the state is on hydrocarbons.”
Small towns in the American West have few things in common with Europe’s ancient cultural centers, but intense, unmanaged tourism binds so many desirable destinations with the same problems. But an important, added problem in the West is that the definition of the community being cared for and kept in balance needs to firmly and clearly include the wildlife, forests, open protected spaces, and watersheds on public and private lands.
Marketing of wildlife tourism draws millions to the Greater Yellowstone region through Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. In the recent past, tourism has ballooned, bringing money but also expensive problems and visitor mitigation issues. In Big Sky, Gardiner and Livingston in Montana, as well as Cody and Jackson, in Wyoming, the same set of problems seen in Barcelona and other European cities exist: residential spaces become tourist rentals, hotels and other tourist-driven businesses encroach, creating low-wage jobs while the cost of living continues to skyrocket.
Unlike other parts of the world, the pandemic didn’t give much of a respite for new or existing efforts in attempts to regain balance in much of the West. Pre-pandemic travel to Jackson, for example, ended in mid-March 2020, and the shutdowns lasted until about July when, with far-flung destinations not possible, road- trippers converged on small towns as well as national and state parks. In a way, it was a godsend. Towns like Big Sky (which was built as a tourist resort but has necessarily become a functioning town) or Jackson (which has relied on tourism in recent decades) had been wondering how they would provide services and municipal budgets when tourism roared back at record breaking numbers in July.
Even with most of town shuttered and empty of visitors from March through June of 2020, tourists flooded back with such intensity that local taxable sales dropped only 16 percent since the pandemic struck, according to Jackson town councilor and economist Jonathan Schechter.
All around the west, RV-ing families in teetering cabins on wheels snoozed in town streets. Hotels were packed. Campgrounds were full, local amenities and trails were jammed, supermarkets were commonly bare-shelved, restaurants backed up for hours, staff exhausted and overworked.
“COVID has really thrown gasoline on the tourism problems,” said Schechter. “It isn’t at all clear to me how we are going to deal with this. But because of Wyoming state law, we are more dependent on tourism and sales tax than the state is on hydrocarbons.”
“It’s always been a tradeoff for parks in managing recreationalists and protecting the land. But now, 80 percent of our population lives in cities. People have lost their connection with the land and don’t know how to behave. Education has to be seen as part of the way we manage people.”
The statute Schechter refers to mandates how the county can spend its lodging tax revenue. The state government opposes new forms of real estate taxes on vacant vacation homes, excessive square footage and other potential revenue streams for Teton County.
In recent years, Jackson has seen traffic worthy of the Long Island Expressway rush hour—derisively called the longest parking lot in the world—with snarling streets, frustrated drivers and blaring horns. In order to accommodate booming tourism traffic, as well as the 43 percent of the workforce that cannot afford Teton County and thus commutes in—and which the expansion of low-wage service jobs doesn’t help— Wyoming’s Department of Transportation is making two-lane roads into four- and five- lane thoroughfares across wildlife habitat and the pastoral valley floor.
These expansions don’t make Jackson quaint and discourage use of mass transit or carpools, but perhaps most importantly, these projects further jeopardize the No. 1number one attraction: wildlife. Like most development, they diminish habitat, impede migration routes and, as those wildlife specimens die under vehicle traffic, negatively impact survival rates for elk, moose, deer and other species in their valley floor winter range.
Conversely, according to Wyoming state tourism data, which mirrors most of the Yellowstone gateway towns, the main drivers of visitation are wildlife, then scenery, and then recreation—in that order.
Yet, it’s not only Jackson. The same issues are proliferating around the Yellowstone ecosystem, in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, to the detriment of the qualities that drive tourism. The preservationists who expanded and protected Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in the 1900s knew these remnants of the ecosystem that once dominated the western states, was, and is still, the last real thread to the vibrant, wild continent before westward expansion. They saw the need for these awe-inspiring lands and remaining ecosystem to be protected for people, but simultaneously protected from them.
It was here that trumpeter swans and bison were brought back from the brink of extinction. The protected land and relative lack of human development regionally means it is one of the only places where elk, antelope, and mule deer are still able to complete their epic, up to 200-mile migrations between summer and winter range, in the same paths handed down from mothers to fawns for millennia. Apex predators, small game, and birds of prey still play out the same story of 10-, 20,000 years ago, in the same mountains and valleys—for now.
“What the park visitor takes away [should be] a transformative experience,” says UM professor emeritus McCool, “educated on values, inspired to learn more, and empowered to protect their own home and open spaces. My feeling on the COVID thing is we have a year or two to design new management of our protected spaces, and particularly our most popular parks cannot be allowed to go back to the way it was.”
To get a handle on this would require tough decisions, and a regional approach. For example, not all tourism flow and traffic are within any town’s control. Nevertheless, Tim O’Donoghue of the Riverwind Foundation, a sustainable destination nonprofit focused on the Greater Yellowstone area, suggests that visitor reservations are needed for the entire region.
“In parks, we must allow access, but we must protect the park, its ecology and why it exists, as well as the visitor experience,” concurs McCool. “It’s always been a tradeoff for parks in managing recreationalists and protecting the land. But now, 80 percent of our population lives in cities. People have lost their connection with the land and don’t know how to behave. Education has to be seen as part of the way we manage people.” But reservations, he allows, are not supported at all levels of the federal government, making proper park management difficult.
How then to draw and then create better tourists, not more tourists, falls afoul of the idea of “heads in beds” being a good thing. But the new thinking about tourism needs a more sophisticated approach, says O’Donoghue. “It’s not just about profitability; not about groups of people running through buying cowboy hats. It’s a paradigm shift we have to do.” If all the gateway towns communicate and get on the same page, even if the parks’ actions were limited, O’Donoghue poses, a very positive shift could be manifested. But despite many well-meaning attempts in the past, little real progress has been made in gaining better control on regional tourism.
That shift potentially involves creating a destination management organization, or DMO, to work with marketing, to bring in people likely to care about why it’s special here, a project promoted by CREST. “There has to be an undercurrent to reach out to visitors: what we offer, what we want to share with you, and what we expect of you,” says O’Donoghue, whose Riverwind Foundation is researching and advocating for a destination management plan for Jackson, and who is a founding signatory of a COVID-era initiative called the Future of Tourism meant to help destinations regroup post-pandemic for profits aligned with conservation and community health.
Ultimately, Greater Yellowstone’s parks and their surrounding gateway communities, in order to do better, must make tough, aligned choices. However, there is plenty of reason for optimism overall, says CREST’s Bray. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with destinations who want to come out of this better. But it is going to take uncomfortable conversations, and there has to be the political will, and public pressure, and a collaborative spirit of being in it for the long haul to make sure resources and communities are protected.”
Whether the current various caretakers of a famed ecosystem and gateway towns will take stock and make the hard decisions with the long term in focus to shifting the current trajectory remains to be seen. But there are plenty of reasons— and people pushing—for just that success.
1. Research: Don’t take an Instagram influencer’s word for it, research any destination you are considering! Fodors, for example, publishes an annual No List, on places to avoid, from political/human rights violators to the “Places That Don’t Want You to Visit” list.
2. Use public transportation: Mass transit not only will reduce the traveler’s impact, it often provides a more genuine experience— and, saves you money.
3. Be observant: When you’re traveling, you will find that people do things differently (also known as, “the whole point”). If you don’t know in advance, pay attention to local behavior and act accordingly.
4. Don’t be helpless: Buy maps, hire a local guide, or learn a few phrases of the language! Excuse me, Hello, Goodbye, Thank you, etc. Even if your pronunciation is crummy, just trying will be appreciated.
5. Be green: Bring reusable shopping bags and a reusable water bottle and be strict about bringing them around.
6. Fund the local economy: Find out if the dollars you spend are going to stay local, and patronize locally owned businesses whenever you can, whether that’s a mom-and-pop restaurant, corner-store bodega or quaint off-the-radar guesthouse.
7. Get off the radar: Is a cool place really that great with 40,000 other tourists and the only locals around are being paid to talk to/deal with/ sell things to you? Strike out for little known destinations, and reap much bigger rewards (and then, maybe don’t put it on social media!).
8. Stay longer: Instead of a few short trips, take one and stay longer. It’s a rewarding, immersive experience that’s relaxing instead of hectic.
9. Travel with, or hire, organizations and hotels that care about making travel and our world something better for people and nature. Resources abound to find certified, sustainable services, often consolidated in one place, like CREST’s website, the Travel with Care Code tips, or the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.
Brigid Mander, is a skier and writer based in Jackson, Wyoming, who prefers uncomfortable travel to hard-to-access—therefore, uncrowded—places. Her work appears regularly in publications like Backcountry Magazine and The Wall Street Journal.